Editor’s note: Reporter David Abel and photographer Jessica Rinaldi are documenting the recovery effort in the wake of Hurricane Irma.
CRUZ BAY, Virgin Islands — A week after one of the most powerful hurricanes in history ravaged St. John island, nearly every shoot of green — every leaf, every palm frond — has been shorn from this tranquil island’s lush hills, as if winter suddenly came to the tropics.
As Nils Erickson, of Newport, R.I., navigated the winding, newly treacherous road to his three-bedroom home overlooking the turquoise sea Tuesday, his eyes reddened and he struggled to summon the words to capture the scope of the devastation.
“Oh my God,” he said, pointing to the sloping valleys where every tree was barren and every house looked as if it had been hit by a bomb. “This is unreal — unreal.”
With Army Black Hawk helicopters flying above and naval vessels floating offshore, Erickson steered a borrowed Jeep past downed utility lines, overturned cars with shattered windshields, zinc roofs that looked like discarded tin can lids.
Everywhere was ruins.
“This is bad,” he said. “It looks like after a volcano erupts.”
Earlier in the morning, Erickson was helping organize one of the many volunteer relief efforts from the port town of Fajardo, Puerto Rico, about a three-hour boat ride from St. John.
The 42-year-old sailor, who has kept a home on St. John since 1994, felt a deep despair after watching from afar how Hurricane Irma’s Category 5 winds pummeled this small island of just 20 square miles.
Like many others, he felt compelled to help.
So Erickson went online and began looking for tour operators who might be able to reach the island, and landed on East Island Excursions, an outfit out of Fajardo that normally offers snorkeling outings to tourists. Over the next few days, Erickson, who had flown down from Newport on Friday, donated nearly $20,000 of his own money and worked with the company and others to raise tens of thousands of dollars to help St. John.
Before dawn on Tuesday, Erickson and a group of volunteers began loading several ships with the goods the money had bought — ramen noodles, milk, socks, bug spray, shampoo, dog food, trash bags, generators, shovels, chain saws, and much more.
After a choppy trip across the Caribbean Sea, the tour boat — filled with supplies — pulled into Cruz Harbor on St. John, where about a dozen sailboats, catamarans, and ferries remained washed up on the beach, like scattered bowling pins. Other boats had capsized or sunk in the azure harbor, their masts bobbing in the surf.
Around the tour boat, the Coast Guard was racing from the battered dock to four cutters floating just offshore, where they had ferried more than hundred residents of St. John. Many of the evacuees looked as if they had just gone through a war.
As Davida Damron, 38, waited to board one of the Coast Guard’s speedboats with her boyfriend and dog, a pitbull named French Fry, she recounted how fortunate she was. Unlike many of her neighbors, whose homes had been flattened by the storm, hers escaped with little damage.
It was the days after the storm that convinced her to leave. She saw a man in the street wielding a machete, screaming “It’s looting time.”
“That made me nervous,” Damron said before boarding a boat she hoped would lead to a flight to California, where her family lives.
Just up the hill at a newly created homeless shelter at the Julius E. Sprauve School, Navidad Rodriguez was still having nightmares.
Like many others, she watched as all the windows of her house were blown out and her roof sheared off by Irma’s 150-mph winds. Rodriguez, her daughter, and others were forced to hide in a hole behind their home, holding each other through what they thought would be their final moments.
“We were screaming, crying, and we thought it was over,” said Rodriguez, 44, who has since slept on a cot in a school classroom with scores of neighbors who also lost everything. “I still cry every day, even in the night.”
She has no idea where she’ll go or what she’ll do, and she worries about the reports of violence on the island.
Officials have imposed a curfew on the island, banning residents from being outdoors between 6 p.m. and noon. But some have dismissed concerns about looting.
“I’m hearing wild rumors,” said John Covell, the lead coordinator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, shortly after landing on St. John. “I’m hearing that the security is not that bad.”
But signs of looting were not hard to find. In front of the island’s police headquarters, there was a fire-damaged ATM machine and a burned-out safe, which someone had broken into. A few blocks away, the glass door of an insurance company had been shattered by a fire extinguisher.
Sergeant Rich Dominguez of the Virgin Islands Police Department acknowledged there had been some looting but insisted things had improved over the past few days, as hundreds of National Guardsmen, Coast Guard personnel, the FBI, and others moved in like a small army, landing Humvees to escort bulldozers, surveying the area with drones and V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft, and setting up an encampment along the harbor.
Dominguez credited volunteers like Erickson for much of the relief effort.
“This is our own Dunkirk,” he said. “It’s the volunteers who made this happen. They just did it.”
On Tuesday, as Erickson drove along the road to his house, already a challenging route of steep drops and blind curves, he came to a bend in the road where a restaurant had been.
The lime-green walls had fallen. The roof had disappeared. A silver SUV sat on a pile of rubble and broken branches. All that was left standing was a sign that read “Chateaux Bordeaux.”
“This is crazy,” Erickson said.
Up the hill, past several fallen utility poles, he pointed to where a neighbor’s house should have been. “Wow, it’s gone,” he said.
When he finally arrived at his house, it was still standing, one of the few that withstood the fierce winds. Inside, the floors were littered with shattered glass and dirt. The front lawn was a gnarled jungle of wrecked trees.
Several of his windows hadn’t survived the storm, but the bed in his master bedroom somehow remained perfectly made. The only real sign of the devastation that had swept across the island were the dead wasps studding his white comforter.
“I’m very lucky,” he said.