As we continue to learn of the human toll and horrific damage caused by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, NPCA’s executive vice president offers her shock and sadness over one of the places hardest hit — and her deep concern for everyone affected.
The island of St. John is a magical place, a region so vivid and breathtaking, it feels as though you have stepped into a postcard of paradise. It is difficult to reconcile the memories I have of its bright, beautiful beaches, welcoming shops and restaurants, and lush, tree-lined mountains with the images I’ve seen the last few days as it stands now, torn apart and stripped barren by Irma’s brute force.
I know I speak for so many people when I say how shocking and heartbreaking it has been to watch two record-breaking storms batter our coastal communities, putting millions in danger and leaving so much suffering and wreckage in its wake.
Hurricanes Harvey and Irma mark the first time two Atlantic Category 4 hurricanes have made landfall in the U.S. in the same year — and they hit only two weeks apart. We are only beginning to understand the tremendous devastation to the communities affected. Our hearts go out to all the people who lost loved ones, homes, businesses, jobs and their sense of security to these terrible disasters.
The unprecedented damage to the Virgin Islands hits me particularly hard because this place had special meaning in my life.
A video of the conditions on St. John on September 10, 2017, by Jon Adams/Youtube.
I first traveled to St. John 12 years ago to attend a friend’s wedding with my boyfriend, Doug. We spent several long, sunny days exploring Virgin Islands National Park, which makes up about 60 percent of the island. We swam at coves like Maho Bay and Reef Bay where the clear turquoise waters were surrounded by gleaming white sands, green mountains and brilliant blue skies. Little did I know that Doug would propose to me right there on the beach at Cinnamon Bay. It could not have been more perfect.
I returned to this beautiful island just three months ago on a work trip, and Doug and our two sons joined me. It was incredible seeing Ryan and Jake, ages 6 and 2, experience these places for the first time. We drove together along a bumpy dirt road to Little Lameshur Bay, where we had the quiet cove to ourselves. We snorkeled in the still, clear water with corals and sea urchins and colorful fish; it was like being in a tropical haven of our very own. We watched pelicans dive into the water right in front of our eyes while hermit crabs roamed the beaches. Watching the awe on my sons’ faces — Ryan getting the hang of snorkeling for the first time, Jake splashing around with a giant smile — is something I’ll never forget.
In my travels, I have also been struck by the kindness of the people who lived on St. John and their love for the land. Of course, how could you live in a place like this and not love it? Everyone I encountered, from people who had lived there for decades to those whose families had been there for generations, were exceptionally kind and welcoming to me, a guest in their special world.
When I found out how hard the island had been hit by Irma, I was deeply concerned, knowing how small a community it is, without even an airport to help residents evacuate or to bring in supplies. I thought of the people who might not have been able to leave, the families with small children, and all of the donkeys, goats and other animals that live throughout the island with nowhere to go.
Now that people are sharing photos of the aftermath, it is completely shocking to see the extent of the destruction — whole buildings flattened, homes and business lost, and trees stripped bare from the impact of the storm. The restaurant where my husband and I had dinner after getting engaged, the Aqua Bistro, miraculously survived. Meanwhile, the Cinnamon Bay Archeology Museum & Lab, one of the oldest historic buildings on the island that housed numerous artifacts and served for years as a museum and resource for teachers, was completely obliterated and everything in it was lost. The death toll, at the time of this writing, is still unclear, and emergency operations are still underway to provide water, food, medical supplies, and search and rescue throughout the Caribbean and other places hardest hit.
The rebuilding effort will be a long and costly one for the Virgin Islands and many other places in the Caribbean, as it will for parts of Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. NPCA will be part of that rebuilding effort, advocating for relief aid and restoration funding that will help the people as well as the parks and tourism economies that were integral to many of these communities.
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NPCA supported the $15 billion Harvey relief package that passed Congress and was signed by the president earlier this week. The administration and Congress have indicated the need for additional disaster supplemental funding bills in the coming months. We have a team working with the Park Service and partners to compile information about the damage, and we are beginning to speak with relevant congressional staff as first steps to ensure that the next relief package helps communities, families and businesses in need, and also helps address the infrastructure damage to our national treasures.
These storms have touched the lives of so many people and left communities in unthinkable conditions. We must band together to show our support, now and for the long term, to rebuild these special places.
About the author
Robin Martin McKenna Chief Operating Officer
Robin Martin McKenna joined NPCA in 2000 and is currently Chief Operating Officer. Previously Robin was Vice President of Regional Operations, overseeing NPCA’s field program for two years and served as Deputy for the department for eight years prior to that.