Hurricane Irma 'devastates' US Virgin Islands, but their sense of community is unwavering

Those living in the U.S. Virgin Islands – particularly on Saint John or Saint Thomas – are still picking through the rubble. Homes, popular bars, hotels and roads were obliterated seemingly overnight as Hurricane Irma ripped through the Caribbean towns.

And now, as people sift through the wreckage and frantically search for loved ones, there’s another potent hurricane, Jose, bearing down on them, following in the wake of Irma.

Communication out of Saint John – home to more than 4,000 U.S. citizens, according to the latest U.S. Census data – is almost completely cut off, residents told Fox News in a series of interviews. Those left on the island with phones with workable batteries spend “lots of time” waiting in line to scramble atop a damaged pizza restaurant – one of the only areas left on the island where they can get a cell phone signal.

Noelle Hancock, who has lived on Saint John for more than six years, was in Texas to help with relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, a massive storm that tore through Texas and Louisiana last week, when Irma wiped through her home.

“It was such a helpless feeling,” Hancock told Fox News. She’s not sure when she will be able to get home.

After two days of no communication, Hancock was able to briefly speak on Friday to her boyfriend, who remained on the island with their two cats. Along with the pets, he waited out the storm in a friend’s concrete apartment building. And now that he’s safe, he’s working with others to help locate those still unaccounted for.

Emily Nakkawita, who lives in New York City, was one of the lucky few able to contact a loved one in Saint John in the aftermath of the storm. Nakkawita shared the text messages sent back and forth with her former roommate, Alesia Georgiou, who now lives in Saint John.

“Our steel shutters ripped out of the concrete, and the bolts cracked the concrete when they flew off during the storm,” Georgiou said in a text. “I was alone in the room when it happened, and I thought I was about to die. My friend grabbed the window and held on. The hurricane glass shattered and then we lost the whole window.”

“We can’t take another direct hit,” Georgiou said in another text. “It will kill us.”


Acacia Wallenburg said the whole building shook during the storm, as water rushed in from the ceiling.

“For the most part, we couldn’t see much of anything – it was just white everywhere. Every once in a while we [would] see an object fly through the air and hope it wasn’t going to hit” where they were sheltered,” Wallenburg told Fox News Friday morning. Along with her boyfriend and two children, Wallenburg was among the few evacuated to Puerto Rico Friday morning.

Wallenburg, who has lived on Saint John for six years, said her home was destroyed in the storm. Most of the roof is gone, shattered glass is throughout the whole house and “major” flooding is everywhere.

Caribbean Sea Adventures from nearby Saint Croix packs supplies and aid on its ships to take to Saint John island.

Caribbean Sea Adventures from nearby Saint Croix packs supplies and aid on its ships to take to Saint John island. (Michelle Griffith)

Throughout it all – the loss of homes and businesses – the sense of community among the little group of Caribbean islands is strong.

From nearby Saint Croix, less than 40 miles from Saint Thomas or Saint John, two 42-foot boats prepared to depart for the latter of the two islands Friday – loaded with donations and aid.

Michelle Griffith, an employee of Caribbean Sea Adventures, said the company was working with FEMA and the Coast Guard to deliver aid. As of Friday afternoon, Saint John was the only island to which the boat charter company was allowed to go to, but Griffith said they hope to soon visit other islands in the area as well.

“It’s a very, very devastating loss,” she told Fox News from Christiansted, the Saint Croix town where the company is located.

But Griffith, too, praised others’ generosity.

“It’s insane the amount of stuff we’re getting,” Griffith said, adding that stores are selling products at cost value. “The community we have here on the islands is enormous.”


Rep. Stacey Plaskett, the delegate from the Virgin Islands, called the damage on Saint John “very catastrophic.”

On Saint Thomas, she said, the hospital, airport, and the fire station are “lost.” At least three people are expected dead in the U.S. Virginia Islands; 23 people total.

“It’s really a very difficult situation,” Plaskett told Fox News, adding that “the federal and local government has not forgotten” the U.S. Virgin Islands.

On Facebook groups, friends have shared messages from those with enough service who were able to check in; family members posted desperate pleas for information on their loved ones. Still others shared credible sites for people to donate and updates about Kenny Chesney’s own relief work in the islands.

Teri Wine, a concierge for the Westin Hotel in Saint John and who has lived on the island for 11 years, created one of those pages in the aftermath of the storm. The page has nearly 2,000 members and is a place for people, especially in the continental U.S., to check on their loved ones or homes on the island.

“People are grateful to be able to see something at all because that’s better than not knowing anything,” Wine told Fox News, her voice breaking.

Wine, who was in South Carolina on vacation when the storm hit, said she was worried as the island’s economy relies heavily on tourism and hospitality – an industry that is sure to suffer greatly in the aftermath of Irma.

She is scheduled to fly back to Saint John on Sept. 17 – depending on Hurricane Jose.

“I’m ready to be back home,” she said. “I want to help.”

And in praising the community, Wine repeated a line that is often uttered proudly by those who live and work there: “You know, they call us Love City. We’re a strong community.”

Yet even with that community, people are worried about the impending Hurricane Jose. Will there be enough shelter left? Without phone or internet services, will people even know about the coming danger?

“Because there are no relief efforts underway to remove rubble, there’s a danger the uprooted trees and house roofs laying in the street now could become projectiles flying around at 150 mph,” Hancock said.

When she spoke to her boyfriend Friday, he had no idea that another storm was even coming.