Virgin Island Residents Could Be Plunged into Poverty by Hurricanes
Thousands of Virgin Islanders don’t have the money to repair their homes or find new ones.
Months after two hurricanes shredded infrastructure and property throughout the US Virgin Islands, residents and government leaders say the storms may have also devastated the territory’s burgeoning middle class and left many people with uncertain futures.
In September and October 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the Virgin Islands, home to 107,268 US citizens spread across the territory’s three main islands of St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas. The storms destroyed the electrical grid, tore roofs from homes, and ruined schools.
And while the islands’ resort hotels, fancy restaurants, and tourist destinations have rebounded, many residents are stuck figuring out how to rebuild the homes and property that represent the culmination of their life’s work.
“I’m now going to die in debt,” Charles Caines, a 72-year-old whose home was destroyed by the back-to-back hurricanes, told The Washington Post. “I didn’t get the assistance I needed, and now I’m out here suffering.”
Caines said he expects repairs to his home, which he purchased afters years of saving money, to cost at least than $100,000, but the US Federal Emergency Management Administration provides no more than $33,000 in direct assistance to individuals affected by natural disasters.
Other residents who were left homeless after storms destroyed their apartments are struggling to find new places to live using modest FEMA relocation payments.
“FEMA programs are designed to help the uninsured and underinsured, to help people get back on their feet,” FEMA spokesman Manuel Broussard told the Washington Post. “It’s not a program that will make you whole again. That is what insurance is for.”
The cost of insurance, however, was simply not feasible for many on the island before the storms.
Median household income reached $37,254 in 2009, up from $24,704 in 1999 according to US Census Data, due to large part to a robust tourism industry, but few islanders could afford top-of-the-line insurance plans that would pay out what they need to recover.
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To facilitate recovery, Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp has asked the federal government for $7.5 billion in assistance. In response, Congress has pledged to provide just $900 million over three years.
Like residents in nearby Puerto Rico, another US territory short-changed by the federal government that is supposed to represent them, Virgin Islanders say their future is uncertain as they try to rebuild their homes and communities.
“Things were hard before, and now you just don’t know what is going to happen,” resident Glenda Smith told the Washington Post. “These are my retirement years. Do you want to be struggling the entire time?”