Residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands Feel Abandoned by Federal Government After Hurricane Irma

By Ayana Byrd Sep 13, 2017

Hurricane Irma hit the U.S. Virgin Islands on September 6 when it was a Category 5 storm with sustained winds of 185 mph. It resulted in four deaths, extensive property damage and a shortage of food and water. But news accounts on the hurricane’s impact have been largely concerned with Florida and other parts of the U.S. mainland.

The U.S. Virgin Islands are a chain of islands that includes St. John, St. Thomas and St. Croix. The United States purchased it from Denmark in 1916 for $25 million in gold. Long seen by many Americans as a tourist destination, it is home to 100,000 permanent residents, 76 percent of whom are Black. It is U.S. soil, but residents do not have full voting rights.

Per an article titled "Hungry Residents in ‘Survival Mode’ on US Virgin Islands" that was published on Monday (September 11) in The New York Times:

Residents on St. John, which suffered even greater damage than St. Thomas, estimated that 80 percent of its structures had been extensively damaged, and those who had not evacuated were huddling together in groups of up to 50 in buildings that had no roofs. With many roads impassible, some had to walk for miles to food pantries to pick up ready-to-eat-meals and bottled water dropped by American military helicopters.

Many here complained that their suffering was being ignored, by the United States and local government. “The government is treating us terrible,” said Ureen Smith, 55, who lived next to a building in which one of the deaths occurred. “Locals are mad they’re not hearing talk about St. Thomas.”

There are other problems as well. Currently, about 300 people are being housed in five Red Cross shelters, says the agency. Security has become an issue, with one resident telling Business Insider, "Everyone in our neighborhood is walking around with sharpened machetes and guns for protection." There is also a lack of telephone and internet service, making communication to the mainland U.S. particularly difficult.

Relief efforts have been impacted by the fact that, according to the governor, approximately 70 percent of law enforcement officials have had homes either destroyed or damaged. The governor also announced at a press conference that President Donald Trump told him that he "loves the Virgin Islands" and would visit within a week to "see firsthand the damages."

Though Trump has not officially scheduled a trip, the military has. Per The Washington Post:

Six days after the storm—some say several days too late—the island finally has an active-theater disaster zone. Military helicopters buzz overhead and a Navy aircraft carrier is anchored off the coast, as the National Guard patrols the streets.

The Times reports there are 5,000 American service members headed to the islands, where they will join 600 marines who have been on St. Thomas since Monday.

In a statement released on Tuesday, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke praised the efforts taken so far by the federal government. “The Department of the Interior actions in the USVI are part of our responsibility for federal policy related to the U.S. territories. We commend the cooperative actions of the White House, USVI government, FEMA and the whole federal family to provide urgent relief to the Virgin Islands.”

A number of local residents disagree with the characterization of the assistance as “urgent relief.” One man told the Miami Herald, “It feels like we’re the bastard step-children of America and now nobody wants to help us.”