Hurricanes in islands touch lives in Tallahassee, too

Hurricane Maria turned Garden Street in St. Thomas into a dune of mud.
Photo especial to the Outlook


By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

The news that Caribbean natives who live in Tallahassee are hearing about ravaging done by Hurricanes Irma and Maria on their islands is gut-wrenching.
From Antigua to Puerto Rico, the two hurricanes that slammed into the islands just weeks apart have damaged infrastructure, homes and caused severe flooding. The hurricanes impacted more than 10 islands and left more than 25 dead.

Now the focus is on recovery and rebuilding, which by many estimates could take months or several years before normalcy returns.

Matthew Bell, a St. Martin native who attends FAMU, has a sense of what his relatives endured. He survived Hurricane Luis in 1995.

“I was stuck on the TV,” said Bell, who has joined with the St. Martin Tallahassee Student Association to start a Gofundme campaign to raise money to provide relief for their island. “It was just unreal watching it happen.”

With each of the islands depending on tourism as its main economy, damage to airports and hotels could spell hard times for months – perhaps years.
Hardest hit were Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, Barbuda, Dominica Puerto Rico and all three U.S. Virgin Islands.

“Over 50 percent of the power lines and poles in St. John are on the ground,” V.I. Gov. Kenneth Mapp told National Public Radio during an interview a week after the hurricanes. “So we’ve just been getting relief supplies, water, meals, medicine to our citizens. The bottom line is we’re getting tremendous help from our federal partners, but the U.S. Virgin Islands need help.”

The same could be said for Puerto Rico, another U.S. territory, just over 100 miles from the Virgin Islands. Enrique Cotes, a Puerto Rican who lives in Crawfordville, worried about his family in the small town of Morovis.

Cotes didn’t hear from his family for several days following Maria’s assault on the island with Category 5 winds of over 150 miles per hour. Not knowing what damage his family sustained caused some worrisome days for Cotes, who moved to Tallahassee 16 years ago.

Communication is slowly returning to some islands, while most is without power.

“Once we hear from them, then we know that we can help,” he said. “Right now it’s just the anxiety (and) the waiting. We can’t live like that for months.”

Like many of the islanders who live in Tallahassee, Thomas James has family ties in more than one island. He is concerned about the loss to St. Martin and St. Thomas, the two top tourist destinations among the islands hit.

The major cruise lines have announced suspension of stops to islands damaged by the hurricanes. Airline flights have been limited at best.

“With no ships coming in and hotels are damaged, airports barely operating, people are out of work,” said James, information technology director for the Leon County supervisor of election office. “But despite having life, it’s very, very difficult because there isn’t much for them to hold on to.”

James also said to expect the sociological impact to last through the recovery process.

“Let’s put it this way,” he said. “If you have two or three kids and everything of yours got blown away, there is nothing to do. It’s back to primitive times; how am I going to survive, what am I going to do.”

Roland Hedrington, who has family on Tortola and St. Thomas, said Caribbean people have a sense of being resilient and that will help them through the recovery.

Eric Rieara, who grew up in St. Thomas, also agreed.

“There is a lot of pride in people from the islands so I know they are going to rebuild strong,” Rieara said. “Disasters bring people together for the most part. So just struggling with the after effects of the hurricane will let them know we need to come together and build things back stronger, better than before. We all suffered and we all have loses.”

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