Caribbean Recovery Right Around the Corner (Almost)
By Jeff McCord
Signs of a slow but steady recovery are sprouting across the U.S. Virgin Islands. A month and a half following the direct hit by Hurricane Irma, a de facto Category 6 storm, and the hard grazing by Cat 5 Maria, the mountainsides are greening, sunsets are majestic and the waters are as clear and aquamarine as ever. Nature leads the human realm in a race to rejuvenation.
Although most heavily damaged, with two-thirds comprised of the Virgin Islands National Park, the island of St. John may show the most signs of satisfactory convalescence among the Virgins. Irma’s eye wall scoured the island with 200 mph plus winds that destroyed or seriously damaged at least half of the human built structures. Wind gusts were so high they stripped the bark off some trees and left the forest an apparent tinder box of brown sticks and shriveled, chopped up leaves.
A natural wasteland was left in Irma’s wake – or, so it seemed. But, humans couldn’t see beneath the ploughed up, plastered soil where half of the bio mass of trees is found in the roots within our tropical dry forests. To most, it seems a miracle that hillsides are already greening, fueled by the rains of Maria and other recent storms.
“Our forest is already recovering,” confirmed Gary Ray, PhD, a St. John based botanist and a leading Virgin Islands environmentalist. “In a matter of months, our hillsides will again become dark green with new branches, stems and leaves.” The key, he said, is in the roots.
“Even in 200 mph wind gusts, the visible canopies often snap off at the main trunk, but the trees still have robust root systems below ground to recover branches, leaves, fruits and seeds. Unlike in a rain forest, our trees are not that often uprooted and killed.”
Dr. Ray assured that this applies to even our prized, fragrant Bay Rum trees, distinctive turpentines and mighty lignumvitae that provided the nearly indestructible wooden beams and masts used by colonists to build the first houses and ships. “This is true of our more than 350 native woody species,” he said.
But, what of our palms? “This includes our indigenous Teyer palms, which, unlike coconut palms, are not top heavy with big, weighty fronds and heavy coconuts. Teyer palms are deeply rooted, produce smaller fronds and small fruits. They will bend in winds and are resilient to snapping. Coconut palms, which are Pacific ‘imports,’ have shallow roots that spread out along or beneath the top of sand. They tend to lose their tops if grown inland or topple if growing in beach sand.”
In short, “Our native forests are absolutely adapted to hurricane recovery,” Dr. Ray said. “Within about a year, visitors will see a normal canopy, although lower in height. Within two years, the forest will look more normal and within 3 to 4 years, all the woody litter on the forest floor will have decomposed and visitors will not notice much evidence of the storm.”
Our coral communities will also recover from hurricane trauma within our National Park and other protected preserves where run-off is minimal. But, the long term damage and threats of warming sea temperatures and over development remain.
Birds, including our beloved pelicans, are also returning to normality. A Park Ranger even saw a migratory Oriole recently. Bananaquits, the U.S. Virgin Islands’ official bird, and multiple species of hummingbirds are again competing at bird feeders and over bowls of sugar water put out by adoring humans.
The humans, though, are having a much tougher time than other fauna and flora. People who have had no military service are learning to love “meals ready to eat” provided by federal relief workers. Standard complete 8 ounce MRE entrees include:
Beef Stew with Potatoes and Vegetables
BBQ Chicken with Black Beans and Potatoes
Chicken Noodle Stew with Vegetables
Pasta with Marinara Sauce and Veggie Crumbles
Chicken Rice with Vegetables
Lentil Stew with Potatoes and Ham
Each meal provides 1,200 calories. And, through a miracle of chemistry, they are safe to eat for up to three years stored in 80 degree temperatures without refrigeration.
“Refrigeration and all the other conveniences provided by electricity will be available again for most Virgin Islanders within two months,” USVI Governor Kenneth Mapp said on October 14. “More than 500 linemen visiting from mainland power companies will be working in the USVI by November 3,” the governor announced. Many are already there including workers from Connecticut and Missouri. Hopefully, these reinforcements will enable the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority to meet its goal of restoring power to 90 percent of the territory by Christmas.
With an economy almost entirely dependent upon tourism, restoration of public services are understandably prioritized to areas essential for financial recovery. To most weary, stressed residents (and worried property owners evacuated to the mainland) the announcement that Royal Caribbean cruise ships will shortly resume normal visits to St. Thomas seemed unbelievable. Nevertheless, USA Today reported that the Adventure of the Seas – a mega ship with 3,114 passengers – will visit the port on November 10th.
Royal Caribbean said that most of St. Thomas’ downtown shops, restaurants and bars – as well as tour operators – will be fully operational when Adventure of the Seas arrives. Among tours that will be available are boat and catamaran excursions around the island and trips to the world famous Magens Bay beach, the company said.
Similarly, on St. Croix, the economically critical Cruzan Rum distillery has resumed operations after a three-week closure for repairs. The V.I. Consortium news service reports that rum contributes $200 million annually to the territory’s economy. Few would question that Cruzan is among the world’s finest aged rums. The distillery is a popular destination for visitors.
Residents of St. John are hopeful that electricity will soon be restored to Cruz Bay, the island’s largest town and location of banks and other essential island services. Coral Bay will be without full power for considerable longer.
With conditions too difficult for non-cruise ship based visitors to St. John and St. Thomas, islanders need continued support from federal agencies and private donations. And, MREs will continue to be haute cuisine for many. Fortunately, the natural wonders that attract visitors to the islands are rapidly recovering on their own.
Jeffrey R. McCord is a free-lance journalist whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Gannett newspapers and Truthout.org, among other publications. For more than 20 years he’s called Northern Virginia home. Jeff is the author of two fact-based Caribbean novels available on Amazon.com: “Undocumented Visitors in a Pirate Sea,” a quarter-finalist in the 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest; and, “Santa Anna’s Gold in a Pirate Sea,” a finalist in the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book contest. He now divides his time between Virginia and St. John, USVI