Nation

A famed hurricane refuge is filled with rubble

Heidi Arnold sorted through the wreckage of her office in Coral Bay to see if she could salvage anything in the Coral Bay section of St. John.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Heidi Arnold sorted through the wreckage of her office in Coral Bay to see if she could salvage anything in the Coral Bay section of St. John.

CORAL BAY, Virgin Islands — It was the place where sailors and tour operators moored their boats during big storms, a protected cove surrounded by mountains known here as Hurricane Hole.

But when Hurricane Irma plowed through the Caribbean last week, the small, isolated community of Coral Bay at the eastern edge of St. John became close to ground zero for the destruction.

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On Wednesday, all that was left of many homes that had long basked in the gleaming view of the cobalt harbor were their foundations. The debris of others — sheetrock walls, tin roofs, everything from mattresses to microwaves — were scattered around the barren mountains.

A week after the hurricane, the local and federal effort to clear roads, remove downed power lines, and restore a semblance of order to this tiny Caribbean island began to ramp up. It was a relief to locals who have complained that they had been forgotten, amid reports of looting.

Coast Guard officials said at least 600 residents and tourists had been evacuated on their speedboats and by a volunteer armada known locally as the “Puerto Rican Navy.”

People listen to information about evacuations and updates about the current situation on the island during a community meeting held at Mongoose Junction in Cruz Bay, St. John.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

People listen to information about evacuations and updates about the current situation on the island during a community meeting held at Mongoose Junction in Cruz Bay, St. John.

Among them was Santa Guerrero, 42, who has lived on St. John for 20 years. The housekeeper was running low on her medication and couldn’t bear to stay on the island, where only the few with generators have electricity and there’s little running water or fuel.

Guerrero has slept on the floor of her destroyed home since Irma.

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“We have nothing left – no house, no car, no job,” she said.

As Leif Ekholm emerged from inspecting what was left of a once-stately home perched on Bordeaux Mountain, the handyman from Framingham pronounced the house “a total loss.”

“We’re keeping busy,” said Ekholm, 48, who has lived on the island for nine years and was one of a growing number of people here taking stock of the damage to St. John, perhaps the worst hit of the US Virgin Islands.

While no deaths have been reported on St. John, where about 5,000 people lived before the storm, local volunteers and others had compiled a long list of people who had yet to be accounted for. Many of those had probably left the island or couldn’t be reached for a lack of communication.

“It’s really hard to know what that list means now,” said Jim Houck, who was leading a canine search team for Help.ngo, a nonprofit group that has helped rescue about a dozen people over the past week.

In response to the destruction, officers from agencies as varied as the US Forest Service and the National Park Service flowed onto the island, conducting foot patrols, directing traffic, and doing everything from unloading relief supplies from arriving boats to providing fuel to long lines of vehicles.

At an early morning meeting at the Virgin Islands National Park Visitor Center, a mainly preserved building that has become the command post for the federal government, officials said there had been fewer complaints about security.

They attributed that to the growing presence of the federal government and others.

The Navy has built an encampment on a nearby baseball field, where they had parked bulldozers, front-end loaders, and other heavy equipment they brought in from amphibious ships. The Federal Emergency Management Agency said they were expecting an additional 10 members from their disaster assistance team to arrive. The US Forest Service had 24 officers on the island, many of them carrying assault rifles and dressed in camouflage.

A member of the Navy clears brush, moved by Hurrican Irma, from the Cruz Bay section of St. John.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

A member of the Navy clears brush, moved by Hurrican Irma, from the Cruz Bay section of St. John.

At a community meeting of about a hundred local residents, Ryan West, who until recently was running a surf shop in Cruz Bay, did his best to assuage the concerns and fears of his neighbors.

He told them about how restaurants were providing free meals with what food they had left and how ferries were taking residents for free to Puerto Rico and St. Croix, another Virgin Island that had been largely spared by the hurricane.

“Don’t be shamed for leaving the island,” he said. “St. John will be here when you get back.”

Elsewhere on the island, divers were working to restore a damaged pipe from nearby St. Thomas that would restore the flow of about 190,000 gallons of water a day. Others were doing their best to make the roads more passable.

Lieutenant Brian Osborne, who was leading the team of 54 naval personnel on the island, was steering through an obstacle course of fallen trees and downed power lines to survey whether his crews could bring heavy trucks to clear the way to a treasured campground.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said.

At the battered outpost of the Virgin Islands Emergency Management Agency, Linda Williams, the agency’s sole full-time employee on the island, described her limitations. She pointed to the agency’s only vehicle, a Chevy pickup, which had a shattered windshield and damaged roof. Its communications tower was leaning precariously, all of its new equipment ruined and its lines hanging in denuded trees.

Like others on the island, she has suffered personally. One of her two homes on the island was destroyed.

“It’s all gone,” she said.

When asked what she most needed in terms of support, she responded: “Sleep.”

Others noted that the lack of communications on the island was making the relief effort that much more challenging.

US Coast Guard Commander Anthony Williams was flabbergasted. He was using a satellite phone and driving a Jeep, but he didn’t know who either belonged to or what he would do without them.

“With little to no communication, it’s really complicated to coordinate this,” he said.

At the Myrah Keating Smith Health Center, the island’s main hospital, a team was trying to restore phone and Internet service through an inflatable satellite dish.

Next to them, a flagpole bent by the wind was leaning by the entrance of the center, which normally treats 20 people a day.

Instead of treating the sick, employees were mopping the floors. A large amount of water leaked from the damaged roof during the hurricane, destroying the X-ray machine and other equipment.

Dr. Elizabeth Barrot, the center’s staff physician, worried about mold causing future problems.

“We’ll see how it goes,” she said.

In Coral Bay, where nearly all the boats that sought safe harbor had capsized or were beached in clumps of debris, local officials were handing out FEMA’s signature blue tarps.

At the local fire station, others were handing out toilet paper, canned food, and other necessities. On a bluff above, the remains of a car that had burned to the metal frame stood sentinel by the winding road, which traversed what looked like a desert of leafless trees and flattened homes.

After Erin Durrell pointed to the damage to her restaurant, which lost its roof, she let go a wry smile. She was thinking of changing its name, as the growing problem of those homes still standing is mold.

“We used to be called ‘Babes Do Brunch by the Bay,’ ” she said. “Now I think we’ll call ourselves the ‘Mold Murderers.’ ”

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David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.
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