Back-to-back strikes from two major hurricanes last year, Irma and Maria, have undone years of economic and social growth in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a new report from the Washington Post finds. The storms have so thoroughly disrupted the islands’ economy, education and health systems that “a generation of Virgin Islanders” may have been “blown out of the middle class,” according to the Post.
The islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix made sizable economic gains in the last 20 years, as the Post writes. Average incomes doubled and poverty rates dropped thanks to a flourishing tourism industry.
But the 2017 storms delivered what the Post calls a “triple whammy” of setbacks: Residents lacked insurance to help offset the damage done to their homes and businesses; federal aid given to the islands has been limited; and, as most major hotels remain closed, jobs have been lost with no sense of when they might reappear.
Like Puerto Ricans, residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands are American citizens but can’t vote in the presidential general election and have no voting representation in Congress. In addition, more than 75 percent of Virgin Islanders are black. But while the recovery effort in both territories has been lacking, Islanders say they feel ignored in the press compared with their Caribbean neighbors.
From the Post:
“Everyone was looking at Puerto Rico, and no one was thinking about us,” said Michael Walker, 48, who is living in a leaky apartment and lost all of his clothing and furniture in the storm. He’s waiting to hear from FEMA about the status of his aid application.
Residents who spoke to the Post were still living under tarp “roofs” handed out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. One 72-year-old who had saved years of $700-per-week paychecks to buy a home told the paper that he will “die in debt” as a result of the damage done to his house. Repairs are expected to cost him $100,000—well beyond his savings and insurance payout.
And he is not alone:
Although insurance adjusters have disbursed more than $520 million to Virgin Islanders so far, many residents say their properties were severely underinsured. Policies for even a modest house in this hurricane-prone region can cost up to $1,000 a month, causing many here to take their chances with minimum coverage or high deductibles.
Direct assistance from FEMA is capped at $33,300 per household, as is the case stateside, although contractors say it is far more expensive to rebuild here because of limited supplies and human resources. The average FEMA grant payout so far ranges from $6,000 to $8,000, the agency said.
A Federal Emergency Management Agency rep, Manuel Broussard, told the Post that FEMA programs “are designed to help the uninsured and underinsured, to help people get back on their feet.”
“It’s not a program that will make you whole again,” Broussard added. “That is what insurance is for.”
Then there’s the damage done to the U.S. Virgin Islands social services. The territory’s two major hospitals sustained “significant water damage,” the Post notes, which forced critically injured patients to be moved to the mainland U.S. for treatment. Public schools were damaged or destroyed, and resources like books, uniforms, musical instruments and “two aqua farms used to produce fresh school lunches” were lost or unaccounted for. The result: There are 2,000 fewer students enrolled in school this year as families move away from the islands.
The U.S. Virgin Islands governor, Brooklyn, N.Y.-born Kenneth Mapp, has requested $7.5 billion from the federal government to rebuild the islands’ infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, energy grid and ports, and to offset the loss of tourist revenue (about 30 percent of the islands’ total economy).
As the Post writes, analysts warn that if lawmakers try to shortchange the Caribbean islands, it could send them into a permanent decline—resulting in “thousands of economic refugees” relocating to the U.S. mainland or elsewhere.