Private Groups Take the Lead in Rebuilding St. John a Year After Hurricane Irma

Streams of visitors pull suitcases on and off the ferry as tour guides in Jeep Wranglers wait by the curb to whisk them away. The nearby Dog House Pub is clamorous with a midday crowd, and, up the street, work crews bolt the finishing touches on a patch of new homes.

Everywhere you turn, there are signs of recovery from the destruction of Hurricane Irma, the Category 5 storm that raked across St. John and St. Thomas a year ago Thursday, essentially paraylzing the islands. Hurricane Maria, also Category 5, followed two weeks later, dumping torrential rains.

A key part of the recovery has come from a rare private-public partnership that, in some ways, has outpaced federal recovery efforts and could be replicated in future disasters, residents and leaders here said.

Groups such as Love City Strong (“Love City” is St. John’s nickname), Love for Love City Foundation, All Hands and Hearts/Smart Response and Bloomberg Philanthropies have poured millions of dollars and hours of sweat equity here and shared resources among themselves with the mutual goal of restoring the island’s homes and businesses.

The effort began with locals – business owners, chefs, out-of-work boat captains – who took the island’s recovery into their own hands in the chaotic days after Irma and has surged with the backing of some well-heeled part-time residents of the island, such as country music star Kenny Chesney and Thomas Secunda, Bloomberg co-founder and billionaire.

“The private sector has shown up on St. John and, in my opinion, really rewrote the playbook on disaster relief,” said Jeff Quinlan, a former bar owner and charter boat captain here who today leads Love for Love City.

Bloomberg mobilized experts on power restoration and other disaster consultants to work alongside island officials to expedite recovery. Flush with expertise, the U.S. Virgin Islands had 90% of its power restored by last Christmas.

Chesney has brought a national spotlight to St. John’s recovery and is donating the proceeds of his latest album, “Song for the Saints,” to its rebuilding.

Last month, Bill Clinton visited the island to praise the efforts of the groups and announce a donation of solar panels from the Clinton Foundation. The former president was hosted by Secunda and Bloomberg.

“We’re a facilitator,” Secunda said. “We’re using our ability to convene and fund and bring in experts and tools from the States, but we’re empowering the local people that live there to do this.”

The twin punches of Irma and Maria left much of the U.S. Virgin Islands – St. John, St. Thomas and St. Croix – essentially cut off from the rest of the U.S. Hospitals on St. Thomas and St. Croix were severely damaged, and St. John’s sole clinic was condemned and later closed. The storms damaged or destroyed 85% of the islands’ 56,000 homes and caused three deaths.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved more than $1.8 billion in disaster assistance for the three islands combined, including $82.6 million in individual and household assistance grants to more than 20,000 households, said Eric Adams, a FEMA spokesman based in St. Thomas.

Much of that money has either not reached residents or, in many cases, was not enough to fix homes ravaged by the storm, residents and volunteers said.

Money from the Community Disaster Loan program, a FEMA-distributed fund that island officials hoped to use to rebuild hospitals and schools, has been slow to reach the island because the Trump administration has placed unexpected stipulations on the money, said Stacey Plaskett, the Virgin Islands’ representative in Congress.

 The U.S. territory has received more than $240 million of the $306 million fund, according to a FEMA spokesperson.

“That’s where the real struggle is right now,” Plaskett said.

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Source: USA Today