Video credit to Connor Shafran
I have always been interested in the human impact from natural disasters. From studying it at school through to university and following intently on the news, the dangerous world is something far removed from my life. So when the hurricanes hit last year, I knew I wanted to help however I could and do something aside from giving money to a large international aid organisation. That is when I began my research into different ways to get involved. Most of the coverage I came across was on Puerto Rico, which sits west of the US Virgin Islands. Puerto Rico was also hit by the storms and devastated but the American media seemed to have forgotten St Thomas, St John and St Croix almost completely.
Over the past weeks, I have learnt more from the locals as well as long-term volunteers about the politics and history of the islands. In 1917, America bought the US Virgin Islands from the Danish. The people of US Virgin Islands are American citizens, carry American passports and pay federal taxes but residents are unable to vote for the President of the United States. The US Virgin Islands’ Congresswoman, Stacey Plaskett, can participate in debates but does not have any voting rights. The disconnect between the United States and US Virgin Islands is apparent in so many different spheres. I experienced this disconnect as soon as I landed in Miami International Airport. The Immigration Officer questioned my intentions for travelling. After explaining about the programme, he asked ‘Are you not a bit late? The hurricanes were over five months ago’. This completely took me by surprise. As someone who worked in Florida - a hurricane-torn state - it was clear that his experience of hurricanes and hurricane relief was polar opposite to that in the Virgin Islands.
The one area in US Virgin Islands I really saw flourishing five months later was Charlotte Amalie, the capital. This area faces onto the waterfront and is the port for large cruise ships that voyage around the Caribbean, bringing approximately 1.5 million people to the island of St Thomas each year. Immediately after the storms, this was the main area of focus for the government. Beaches, shops, restaurants and roads were top priority so cruise ships could land and tourists could enjoy paradise. It was seen to be vital for the island's economic recovery that tourism resumed as soon as possible. Today, when you step off the ships, you are greeted by a picture perfect Caribbean scene. It is only when you start heading inland and to the neighbouring districts that the sea of blue tarped roofs appears and the devastation that still remains is realised.
The priorities of All Hands and Hearts while I have been here is mucking and gutting of homes, debris removal and rebuilding of schools. This is such a rewarding project and has opened my eyes to the vast amount of work that there is to do. I have now worked on mucking and gutting of 12 homes and the rebuild of two schools. But we are not done yet!