This week marks six months since Hurricane Irma hit St Thomas. The storm brought 185mph winds, which took the roofs off thousands of buildings, then just two weeks later Hurricane Maria came, bringing huge downpours of rain. Homes were flooded and the loss was epidemic.
All Hands and Hearts has led the efforts in disaster response since October 2017, helping over 5,000 people and logging more than 46,000 volunteer hours. I have been on the island for 10 days and have logged 100 hours. In this short amount of time, I have already seen so much strength and determination amongst communities across the island. The work is hard, physically and emotionally, it is +30 degrees and a long way from London but I have had the privileged opportunity to get to know the island on a whole new level.
The very first home I worked on was in the neighbourhood of Contant. As we gathered our tools for the day, our team leader briefed us that this project was extremely sensitive. Mr and Mrs Ferguson, an elderly couple, had shipped their 15-sided home over from the mainland, where they were told that it would be strong enough to withstand a hurricane. But when two hit in the same month, the house and the area crumbled. They were trapped in their home for three days with no water and no food. The roads in Contant were completely blocked with debris and it was impossible to get in or out. Mr Ferguson told me that when he was rescued he was so weak that he had to be airlifted straight to Puerto Rico for medical treatment. He was taken so quickly that he lost his wife en-route and had to leave her behind. Mr Ferguson ended up in a shelter in Puerto Rico for several weeks. The shelter held over 1,200 people in one room with only two toilets, while his wife was alone in their home dealing with the devastation the storm had left. Despite this trauma and complete loss, the couple were back together and full of laughter, love and graciousness. They were smiling and sorting through personal belongings while we removed mouldy termite infested walls, floors and ceilings around them. In less than two weeks, I have worked on mucking and gutting, debris removal, quality control and sanitation across six completely unique homes. I’ve learnt the basics of plumbing and mastered several new power tools, but hearing the inspirational stories of the survivors has been the highlight so far. The ability to pick yourself up when your home and life have been torn before your eyes is something that I am finding breathtaking. Many people in St Thomas literally don’t have a roof to sleep under and yet are so positive.
To find out more about the charity or to donate to the efforts that enable the work to continue here on the island of St Thomas visit - www.hands.org/projects/usvi-hurricane-response/
So far, I have 1001 inspiring stories and 1001 mosquito bites...next blog post coming soon.