My Story and Our New Normal

It’s hard to know even where to begin. The past month has been a blur and I often truly don’t know what day it is. So, I guess I’ll start from the very beginning.

I spent 3 weeks from mid-July to the beginning of August in Massachusetts helping my mother as she recovered from double knee replacement surgery. Though it was a wonderful trip spending quality time with my Mom and enjoying the comforts of my childhood home, I was really happy to get back to my island life.  I’d gotten home and was ready to dive into fully immersing myself in working on and getting it ready for a busy season. I got a couple new lenses for my camera and was excited to explore my island home more to share it with all of you. Then we got news that Irma was on her way. I actually spent an entire week running around getting supplies, preparing my rented apartment in a home that was in no way ready to weather the storms (boy did we get lucky though) and helping out friends where I could. I weathered Irma with close island family and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief that we had largely been spared. But pretty immediately, we got word that St John and St Thomas were entirely devastated.

Living in the islands, many residents bounce around from island to island and though we are 40 nautical miles away on St Croix, we all have close ties to people on our sister islands and the BVIs. So it was time to mobilize to help our sister islands of St John and St Thomas in any way that we could. On my way home from Irma curfew lift on St Croix, I was contacted by a friend who no longer lives on St Croix, but like many who leave for various reasons, her heart is still in the islands. She told me about a group of St Johnians living or caught on vacation stateside that were instantly working on relief and asked me if I could use my local connections and logistic skills to help. How could I say no? Honestly, I thought they would need a few phone calls and some advice but it quickly turned into 12 days of very long hours and more than full time work helping to provide logistics support for medical personnel, critical medical supplies, satellite phones, boats full of critical supplies: food, water & medicines for Coral Bay, St John that was largely cut off from the rest of the island supplies due to blocked roads. I was helping to organize volunteers and providing assistance to the Global DIRT team – an elite squad of disaster response specialists that were conducting critical search and rescue efforts in remote areas of St John. And I was connecting local government contacts that I had worked with in the past during my stint as a Communications Director for former St Croix Senator Judi Buckley with the various private entities working hard to get aide to St John and St Thomas. I was on the phone non-stop, texting, emailing and helping those heroic folks on the ground get things done. Our group, now officially Virgin Islands Relief was the first group that got any food or water into Coral Bay. A week before they may have gotten access food or water otherwise. We worked as a well-oiled team with Cane Bay Partners founder Dave Johnson’s privately owned Turn & Burn sport fishing boat that did multiple trips a day when possible – 40 miles over open ocean each way – to bring generators, medical supplies, Rescue Nurses, food & water. We also worked with Big Beard’s Adventure Tours to get their boat “Adventure” in to evacuate residents from Coral Bay to St Croix where our island had volunteer homes with hot meals waiting with open arms to take them in. The response of the St Croix community was nothing short of incredible in every sense of the word. Every. Single. Person I know was helping in some way. I have never been more proud to call myself “Crucian”. Of note, Big Beard’s was also a part of a flotilla – affectionately now known as the Crucian Navy – of private boats led by Caribbean Sea Adventures who began running supplies to St John and St Thomas and bringing evacuees back to St Croix. These were snorkeling tour operators who became HEROES in every sense of the word. The 40 mile crossings weren’t always easy but these guys did it with utmost safety and literally saved hundreds of lives. When St Croix is back open for business, please show them your appreciation by booking one of their tours!

Wall Street Journal, 9/13/17: After Hurricane Irma, Virgin Islands Recovery Picks Up With Federal Help

“On Wednesday, private boats from St. Croix continued to ferry supplies including food, water, generators and chainsaws, as well as nurses to provide medical help, said Cindy Clearwater, a tourism promoter who has helped coordinate the relief efforts on that neighboring island.”

I had just unloaded a plane full of supplies to put on Turn & Burn for distribution on St John (destined for a contact staying on St John at Kenny Chesney’s house) when I got word from her sister to hold the supplies. Maria was coming and they were likely evacuating St John. I took a deep breath and looked at the weather. Maria was just forming and was estimated to be a Category 1 storm headed straight for St Croix. My only thought at that time was “We need to get all the people evacuated to St Croix out of here. They have been through enough.” Thankfully, I wasn’t alone and things were being mobilized to do just that. At around 11pm that night, I tagged in a Facebook message that there was a group of people that need to get onto a Coast Guard Cutter evacuating them to Puerto Rico for a “mercy flight” (free evacuation flight) and they needed rides for the group which included several dogs. We needed to meet them at 4am. Again, how could I say no. I was in. I was up at 3:30am and met a few other volunteers. We loaded up the group and had them at the Frederiksted Pier for 5am. With some waiting and lots of hugs and well wishes, we waived as they departed at 7:30am. My heart was so full and it was an absolutely gorgeous morning. Then we looked at the weather reports. Maria was strengthening and her path hadn’t deviated a bit. She was headed straight for St Croix and Puerto Rico and now predicted to hit as a Category 5 Major Hurricane. The two islands that had been a lifeline for our sister US Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands. How could this be happening?

With little time to think, I started gathering my hurricane supplies from Irma and packing my house back up (I had just started to take things out of plastic in my closets). I went shopping for a few more things, but our stores were largely out of supplies. Batteries were nowhere to be found. We had bought all we could for Irma and then shopped and sent much of our local supplies to St John and St Thomas to help them after Irma. Because that’s what islanders do. We help each other no matter what. I put together an email with a list of all my Hurricane Irma contacts and updates, in case I lost communications, and sent it to the team stateside. And then, the morning of Hurricane Maria’s arrival as the winds started to pick up – I packed my car, my 2 dogs and 2 cats (one took off and braved the storm outside – she is fine thank goodness) and headed to another friend’s house that was safer than my place. There a group of us: 6 adults, 7 dogs and 3 cats pooled our resources and kept each other company for what would be one of the scariest nights of our lives and an aftermath we couldn’t have imagined.

I settled in to the nice cement “bunker” room with attached bathroom at my lovely host’s house. The main house where I stayed is made of thick cement walls and so I felt very safe. The windows were all sealed with metal hurricane shutters, we had plenty of food and water between us all and my friend Casey had a delicious stew on the stove that made me think of my Mom cooking for us during blizzards. Comfort food was the perfect touch. I braved the ever increasing winds on more than one occasion to get out Facebook Live weather reports and was in touch with a CNN producer who was checking in. One part of our incredible Virgin Islands Relief team was focused on making sure that the National News Media didn’t forget about the United States Virgin Islands and they have been doing a fantastic job at it. The winds and rain continued to increase and we settled in to play games, have a nice dinner and try to relax as much as possible. Around 11:30pm I decided that it was now or never to go back down to the room I was staying in. I didn’t want my dogs and cats to be scared and alone. And, I needed their comfort too. I had to go outside to get to that room and though my friends protested, I made it safely. It was getting really bad outside. CNN called me just before midnite and had me live on the air for a few minutes. That alone was pretty surreal. And I was actually starting to get a little scared while I was on the phone. The winds were howling, door was rattling and the metal Hurricane shutters were banging. After I got off the phone, I dead-bolted the heavy wooden door hoping that would keep it from blowing open. Thankfully, it did. Then I sat on the bed and stared at the metal hurricane shutters and listened to the eerie squeal of wind getting through them. At one point, I felt the bed start to shake. I put my hand on the cement wall to see if the house was actually shaking. It wasn’t. But the bed was. I was scared. I continued to watch the Hurricane Shutters thinking that if they blew off, I would jump into the tiled shower with the mattress over me – that would be my only option. They didn’t blow off and that’s the last thing I remember. At some point in the night, I quite literally passed out from the exhaustion and non-stop adrenaline of the past 12 days since Irma.

At 7am, there was a bang on the door – the storm was still blowing pretty hard. It was my friend Casey and he was frantically asking if I was OK. The roof had blown off the guest house where one of my hosts had been riding out the storm. In the main house where everyone else was, they had to use ropes to tie together the huge wooden front doors from blowing open. They used sheets to tie the doors in the master bedroom where the hurricane shutters had blown open. I made my way upstairs and saw the devastation outside on my way up. What had been a beautiful hilltop home with large royal palm trees, landscaping, orchids and old growth mahogany trees was desolate and strewn with gutters and pieces of roofing and other debris that had blown off. The beautiful iron rail work along the upper landing had blown right off. Trees  and coconuts were down across the driveway miraculously missing every one of our vehicles.

It wasn’t until later that afternoon that the storm finally subsided enough for us to really get out and explore. The damage was overwhelming. My dear friends and hosts had been living in their guest house while renovating the main house and most of their home was destroyed from losing the roof and the flooding that ensued. My friend Casey lost the roof off his cottage completely and most everything he owned was destroyed. My other friends who lived down the hill had a lot of damage too. We were able to find this out by hiking down the hill that was strewn with large trees every 30 or so feet. It took 5-6 of us and 2 chainsaws two full days of moving trees, branches and inches of leaves along 3/4 of a mile to be able to get out a car. We are all covered in scrapes and bruises to prove it. The entire island was in the same situation. We had plenty of supplies to get us through and a generator providing power – a luxury many on the island didn’t have – and we were all safe and sound. We also had positioned one of the cars at the very bottom of the hill, so once curfew was listed for the first 4 hours two days after the storm, a few of the group were able to get out and get a more supplies. I was finally able to get to check on my apartment, that had largely flooded 4 days after the storm. Thankfully, I sustained minimal damage to my personal belongings carefully packed in my closets.
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Today, a little over a week after Hurricane Maria, I’m home at my apartment, still cleaning up, and life has become much different for all of us. The vast majority of the island is without power. Telephone poles, wires and transformers are down across the entire island of St Croix (St John and St Thomas were hit even worse by Irma) and power restoration for the island is estimated at 6-7 months. The sounds in the air are of generators (think of non-stop lawn mowers right outside your window) most of the day. All three islands are under mandatory curfew and here on St Croix we are allowed out of our homes from 11am to 6pm. Once out, we wait. Typically, I work from a home office. But since my home runs the generator only about an hour per day for showers, I have to bring my laptop and devices to our Sunshine Foundation Headquarters at Sugar Mill Veterinary Center to charge. I get wifi by hot-spotting off my cell phone which can be fickle but has mostly been working. And then we wait. Yesterday I waited in line for an hour and a half for the 1 bag of ice I was rationed along with hundreds of others. I ran home and put it in my cooler and then went back out to wait in line 45 minutes at one of the few working ATMs. Internet is largely out on the island, so most places will only accept cash. I also waited a half hour to drop off my household trash and then another half hour to get gas. Typically gas lines are longer because many are filling 5-gallon containers to fill chainsaws and generators daily in addition to their vehicles. Today the post office opens and I’ve never been so excited to check my mail box for signs of normalcy. I don’t even care if it’s a bill. Slowly restaurants and other businesses are opening and it’s a welcome chance to just get out and bump into friends. There’s a lot of hugging and sharing of stories and well wishes when waiting in lines. Everyone is largely patient and kind and helpful everywhere you go. Our community is stronger than ever and there’s no place else in this world that I would rather be than here. Home. On St Croix.

There is a large military and FEMA presence and will be for some time. They are doing great work getting us needed supplies and helping to reconstruct our infrastructure. St Croix and the US Virgin Islands are just temporarily undergoing a redesign and we will be back up and ready for you to visit really soon! Better than ever! Commercial flights should resume next week as our airport gets back to business, but most of our hotels are filled right now with first responders and relief workers. Restaurants who are not allowed to be open past 6pm are catering for the first responders meals which is helping them stay afloat. Please keep us in your prayers and don’t let people forget we are here. United States citizens who live in a United States Territory, next to Puerto Rico another US Territory of US Citizens. Not just “Americans living on the islands” If you are born here you are a US Citizen. Period. Our islanders have served in the US Military at higher per capita rates than anywhere in the country. And they proudly serve. There are over 3.5 million of us currently devastated by not only two Category 5 Hurricanes in 12 days, but we also sustained flooding and damage from both Harvey and Jose. Many of my friends have lost everything they worked so hard for and are busy rebuilding. I will keep you informed as we all rebuild and share some of their stories.

Below are some ways that you can help. These are grassroots organizations that I can personally tell you are doing good work, helping people and animals on the ground and getting things DONE. Right now donating CASH is the best way to help for a few reasons. Choose one that speaks to your heart and your interests and support them.

  1. The organizations below know exactly what is needed and can utilize donated funds to source those needs.
  2. Sending boat and plane loads of goods is amazing and makes us all smile, but it takes huge amounts of volunteer labor to get the job done. And shipping can be costly. Please know, however, we are forever grateful for all those donated goods we have received so far!!
  3. Our local economy desperately needs a cash infusion. When organizations purchase locally, it helps us rebuild and grow. The organization that I have been working with directly since Hurricane Irma. They started with relief supplies and plans for rebuilding St John and St Thomas and have now expanded after Maria to include St Croix and Puerto Rico.  I am currently working with them on logistics for containers coming to St Croix full of relief supplies to distribute to our community. Cane Bay Partners LLC founder David Johnson and his Turn & Burn team were working alongside our team at VI Relief before Maria hit. He and company co-founder, Kirk Chewning, have made it their mission to raise $1 million dollars in relief funds for St Croix. This is in addition to their already chartering 2 flights that evacuated employees, women and children, seniors, terminally ill and disabled individuals from St Croix. Each has committed to matching the first $100,000 raised by Cane Bay Cares. That means that the first $200,000 raised will automatically become $400,000. Their drive is affiliated with the Community Foundation of The Virgin Islands meaning that 100% of those monies (zero administrative fees) will be used for relief efforts. I have been working with Sunshine Foundation since 2009 and am currently the Development Director for the 501c3 Non-profit whose mission has been to end pet over-population on St Croix and support special cases of animal neglect and abuse on our island. We are currently shifting our mission to provide shelter to homeless animals following Hurricane Maria. The boarding facility at Sugar Mill Veterinary Center was already pretty full of boarding pets whose families haven’t yet been able to get back to St Croix. The St Croix Animal Welfare Center was able to evacuate almost all of their homeless cats and dogs to foster homes in the states in an incredibly heroic volunteer effort just before Maria that also included evacuating animals from St Thomas and St John. However, their facility was pretty much destroyed in the hurricane. So the boarding facility at SMVC is one of the only places available to house homeless and displaced pets on St Croix right now. We already have many people evacuating the island who cannot bring their beloved pets for a variety of reasons. We want to be able to offer them shelter and care. We are also seeing a volume of animals with no identification injured in the storm and dropped off by good Samaritans. Dr. Stacia Jung is providing care and we plan to coordinate with some other volunteer veterinary organizations to mobilize and offer professional veterinary care services to all three islands to include vaccines, medical procedures and medications, spay/neuters (we already had a terrible over-population and stray issue throughout the USVI, it’s going to get worse now), tetanus vaccines for horses and goats and more.  WE NEED FUNDING to provide these services and order critical medical supplies ASAP. Another group that I have worked with that has made a huge difference in our community and is near and dear to my heart. The Cruzan Cowgirls Horse Rescue currently has a herd of over 30 horses in their care in various stages of rehabilitation. Their horseback riding tours were the main source of funds to feed this very large herd and provide them medical care. Their trails have been largely destroyed and require a lot of trail blazing to get back and the beautiful beach they rode on will take some time to become sandy again. So, right now they are relying soley on donations to provide feed for their horses. Please consider a donation to them.

If you have been to St Croix and made friends or have friends and family currently living here or on any of the islands – “adopt” them. Get their mailing address and ask them what their current needs are. Many of us have businesses fueled by tourism or work directly in the tourist industry. Our incomes have been dramatically affected and that is scary right now. Things like Amazon Gift Cards or VISA gift cards that they can shop with are wonderful ways to help (some stores and restaurants are able to take credit cards already, more will come online daily). Pop one in a card of encouragement and mail it to them. It will make their day. There are lots of items that we can all use to make life without regular power a little more bearable. And bug spray for these darn mosquitoes! LOL. So ask them and consider sending an early Christmas gift. I’ve dropped in a couple suggested items below that can make living long-term without power a little easier.

You can continue to support my efforts to bring you updated news and information about St Croix by shopping in our online store!! All the designs are mine – made on and inspired by St Croix. However, they are printed in the USA by a fulfillment company and so our goods haven’t skipped a beat. And right now, it’s my main source of income. Show your love for St Croix by purchasing a t-shirt, hat, mug, bag or more and tell our story to everyone you meet. Help us spread the word about our island and it’s incredible people.

Shop @MyStCroix

Life here will return to normal before we know it. Right now we are adjusting to the new normal and I am inspired daily by the smiles and good work that every person on this island is doing to help one another. We cannot wait to share our warm and welcoming Crucian hospitality with all of you real soon!



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