By Barbara Knight- former resident of St. John USVI
For those of us who have experienced a Hurricane, we know we will never forget how it feels: as if the energy has ahold of you, a forcefield, a strength that cannot be measured, that cannot be contained or avoided. And if you were as lucky as I, you were blessed with a diverse group of amazing souls thrown together in a serendipitous way for this event, some of us doing our best to keep a heavy moment feeling light. While bunkered together in the downstairs laundry room, water rising around our feet, the wind roaring like a jet plane crashing, the concrete walls moaning and vibrating, we cracked storm jokes, reminisced of times together, talked about the first thing when we would do when we got out of that room and some of us turned to song and danced to old show tunes in an effort to distract us from our reality. The hours passed and the storm continued to rage giving us one simple knowing – our beautiful island was being ripped and torn into shreds and our lives, our existence there would never be the same. I kept a never-ending loop, a mantra in my consciousness, “this is temporary, this is just a moment, today is not the day my soul departs this world, the only way out of this is living through it.”
On September 6, 2017, Irma decided not to turn north as predicted but take its path directly atop the Virgin Islands, at a strength the Caribbean had never seen. My home, my island life of the past 18 years shifted from paradise to despair. As we go along this road called life, there are times we find ourselves in unexpected situations, detours without choices, where all we can do is buckle up, hang on and stay the course for the ride. As we speed along our journey to reach destinations of who we think we are and who we hope to become, the fabric of our identity along with everything we had created and all we owned, was gone, erased as if it never existed.
The next day the sun does rise as we gather each morning at Mongoose Junction to hear the latest news, who or what has been located, whole, alive or dead, who is still missing, and the prioritizing of the most pressing of needs at the moment. A natural rhythm of how we can be of service to each other forms as we divide ourselves into various teams. There are the announcements from government officials imposing curfews, search and rescue updates and when we can anticipate the arrival of supplies and aid.
In the aftermath that follows there is a grace within the necessity of momentum, the activity that survival brings forth, a call to action to participate with your community to create the basics of food, shelter, and unity. You realize that your days in scouting and summer wilderness camp and the wise advise the Rastas taught me about island bush skills were now being put to the test. It is day three and I am overwhelmed with gratitude that I made it to a safe and dry space for the night, walking up steep hills to reach my destination. I have with me a styrofoam container full of food for the night and snacks for the morning and a precious bottle of drinking water. As the sun is setting, and without distraction, without a way to connect to anyone or anything, no movie to watch, no book or emails to read you come to the painful realization that you must reserve what battery power your phone has until you can recharge again. This device that thankfully was spared destruction becomes your everything: clock, flashlight, camera, recorder and a true blessing, your music library. It is in the silence when I begin to recollect what just occurred, questioning all that I am and what could have been done differently and wonder what tomorrow will bring as darkness creeps in with the setting sun.
It is day 5 and I must find a new dwelling to keep what is left of my belongings, a place to sleep as the property management company needs to put their employees there so other arrangements must be made. Most of my original hurricane roommates had departed the island, evacuated as they were bound to prescribed medications that would shortly run out and those of us choosing to remain had to scramble to find friends with space for us. Everything and everywhere we went was wet, the outside yards full of whatever had been inside, lots of broken glass and the interiors, floors, and walls covered in foliage and mud, all to be cleared so we could exist. We joked that our new best friends were whoever had a roof and owned generators. Most of us now in the mix had decided whether to evacuate due to health issues or family needs or to stay for the long haul – to be part of the recovery process as we heal and rebuild together. The smallest of blessings and the greatest of victories, never a shortage of hugs and helping hands. Money, especially in the form of banking or ATM was of no use as without electricity, as no one could power their systems. Cash for gasoline and diesel for generators was essential, but food and clothing were available at no charge. Immediately, restaurant owners and those of us in the foodservice and hospitality industry banned together and collectively took inventory and stock of all essential and viable products and transported them to three functioning locations where we had the ability to serve three amazing meals a day keeping the island fed. Clothing stores and retailers allotted their inventory so everyone in need could have a clean and dry t-shirt or other items of clothing to wear. Parents and caregivers created daycare for children to play, eat and be cared for while their parents worked. We pulled together despite ourselves, processing shock, disbelief, and grief. As the death toll rose, ‘survivor’s guilt’ rose too, and the most difficult for me to navigate was ‘hero’s complex,’ fighting for control to prove my value.
St. John was starting to receive news of tremendous financial help coming our way from the celebrities who use the island as a way to market their brand and the multimillionaires who own the villas and financial companies residing for corporate and personal income tax avoidance. As lines of communication began to open up, our families and loyal visitors that come as often as possible and call St. John their home away from home were preparing to send us goods and money, though we had no way to access these funds. Puerto Rico and St. Croix were the first to arrive with the National Guard and SWAT, which were coordinating efforts with the Coast Guard, establishing order where necessary, clearing roads, conducting search and rescue and establishing a medical facility and base from our hospital, as St. Thomas’s facility had been destroyed. On Day 7 came FEMA and Red Cross, agencies we were told would give aid in this process, only to find out most were coming to profit from our calamity. We had no idea that an official looking shirt and tags with FEMA translate into a subcontractor or NGO. I am not sure we ever had any real FEMA representatives on the island.
On Day 9, signs went up and the rumors started to spread that FEMA had ordered a mandatory evacuation of ‘unnecessary’ residents as another storm approached. They said we would be transported to San Juan or Fajardo to be taken to the airports where we would wait and be airlifted to the USA. Having not lived in the continental United States for 18 years, where would they take me? What if you had nowhere to go? Did they not understand that the worst had already been done to us and that if Maria did affect us, there was nothing else to come down? How were they going to get us all out of Puerto Rico when Maria’s trajectory was rapidly speeding up? There wouldn’t be enough time to evacuate us all. They were going to be placing us in greater harm, yet no one would listen. We later realized that the motions that had been set in place were based on captains who were contracted and paid by FEMA. FEMA wanted us out as it would mean fewer people to feed, telling us they would not be able to keep us with resources so we had to go.
The next day, Sunday, September 17, the military and personnel that had been assisting us vanished. With FEMA and Red Cross attempting to reorganize us, giving us new instructions daily and disrupting the life-sustaining food supply, ordering the closure of our established food services and replacing them with MREs. They were sending out people to order those of us without homes or jobs to be at the National Park dock to evacuate, telling us we would only be able to take one bag. I did everything to refuse these orders until the end when a ranger from the Department of Interior carried all 3 of my remaining bags in his vehicle to the boat along with my dog, completely against my will ordering me to depart. I had been labeled an unnecessary resident, how could that be after 16 years of residency? That one act by FEMA was the beginning of a very long journey that took me to remain on Puerto Rico for 7 months, homeless, forgotten by officials, scrambling for safety on an island where I had no association, no friendships, no money and little knowledge of the Spanish language.
When the boat they put us on arrived in Puerto Del Rey in Ceiba, we realized that FEMA contractors had betrayed us. We were not in Fajardo or San Juan and all that was waiting after hours of sitting on the boat with the captain not allowing us to disembark, was ICE, DEA and Border Patrol treating us like animals and then literally caging us behind a chainlink fence for a meal that again, a catering crew was hired by FEMA to feed us. We were left at the wrong port, without the facilities or transportation promised to fend for ourselves, and over a hundred people and as many animals not knowing what was next. Those who possessed cash could access their accounts by private taxi, again people making money to transport us charging 5 times the normal rate to take us to the airport. I am a single white female, 58 years of age, left to survive my second hurricane in less than 2 weeks without the safety of my community network, without resources, with 3 suitcases and a dog. Where was I going?
I set myself, my dog and my belongings outside the fencing on a grassy spot in the shade and called my son, who coordinated his siblings to send money to get me through. The caterer was kind and hearing my story, contacted their relative who operated an Airbnb and made arrangements for me for the night, driving me to their home. It was a charitable consideration shown to me that night that ultimately got me through what would become and still is the most disruptive year of my life.
It was another Airbnb my family found in Cabo Rojo that got me through Maria. I was homeless and moved to 12 different homes for temporary shelter until awarded my Temporary Shelter Assistance (TSA) hotel on December 8. FEMA applications being misconstrued, learning to navigate the process as you learn everyone is denied and must reapply over and over again as the rules kept changing as more disasters around the USA diluted the resources. I was denied food stamps, and then finally awarded $105 a month because I was not legally a resident and in Puerto Rico, and you need a permanent home address to be approved. The stories and circumstances are endless as are the miracles. In the end, Disaster Recovery Center personnel became my hero and Disaster Case Management became public enemy of the people. HUD was there trying to help and then one day they were gone. We never were really informed or educated as to what was truly going on as allotments and rules pertaining to them changed day to day. Puerto Rico did not know what to do with me and all I asked for was to be returned to St. John so I could be part of their system. Why couldn’t someone just pick up a phone and call FEMA there and say, “hey, we have one of yours here and we are going to send her to you?” On Oct 10, they announced that the airports would not be taking people with pets and the ports and supply vessels were for supply transportation only. Now I had no way to leave. I tried hard to get a job so I could financially support myself and stood in line for 3 hours only to be denied a job from FEMA because I am not bilingual, though FEMA was bringing workers from the states without the ability to speak Spanish. My emergency unemployment could not be filed through their labor department, as I could only apply in person on St. Thomas. I could not find employment and without employment did not have a way to secure an apartment.
In February I received Rental Assistance from FEMA, however, landlords would not honor it and without steady income again I was denied. Disaster case management representatives are not well trained within the system yet their position is to help us find the resources necessary to rebuild our lives, to fill in the gaps. They would appear at the hotel, go over our progress and never keep their word to implement the plans of which primarily consisted of contacting charities and NGOs. Each time we would be assigned a new Case Worker and have to start all over again. I was eventually denied TSA renewal due to a Case Worker writing a felonious memo stating that he had found me a ticket to travel back to St. John. If only that was true! And no matter what proof the DCR Managers or I provided TSA or FEMA they would not reinstate or give me further assistance leaving me literally homeless and nowhere else to turn.
The system failed me as it failed most of us. It’s like a big bowl of spaghetti that no one can seem to find a way to sort out. I was caught up in the chaos determined to return home. I had been displaced and am now living in the USA, still without work, moving from friend to friend, and now at my daughter’s home in Denver.
What is the aftermath? What is starting over? Hurricanes come and go, they are storms that momentarily disrupt our lives, destroy material possessions and are largely inconvenient. We are trained to weather the storms but none of us had any training or knowledge of how to weather FEMA and its all-encompassing NGO’s and Contractors. They were the real Hurricane, a never-ending storm that takes you in and spits you out over and over again. It could have been much simpler for us all, temporary housing, food, water, and a few dollars to hit the reset button. The most important element is housing, the foundation for everything else to follow. All the hours I spent moving, walking miles to reach DRC centers and government agencies for help only to be turned away, looking for places to live with my days consumed with survival, an unnecessary struggle with endless promises to be broken and people in offices in faraway places making decisions to place me on a boat and leave me homeless on Puerto Rico, to finally give me a hotel room only to displace me again, to be left to fend for myself. Will someone please explain to me why did they take me down this crazy journey?