Hurricane Hugo Haunts Virgin Islands
By William Branigin
CHRISTIANSTED, U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDSSix weeks after Hurricane Hugo lashed the Caribbean, damage in the Virgin Islands particularly St. Croix is extensive. Debris is being cleared, and full electricity and telephone service are not expected for months. But the psychological scars from what happened when Hugo's winds stopped howling may take longer to heal.
Combined with lack of leadership from a territorial government widely denounced here as inept, the massive destruction, likened by some St. Croix residents to a nuclear holocaust, produced a sort of "day after" effect marked by a major breakdown of law and order.
Three days of near-anarchy followed Hugo's terrible passage during the night of Sept. 17-18 and prompted President Bush to dispatch about 1,100 Army military police and 170 federal law-enforcement officers, including 75 FBI agents and a "special operations group" of the U.S. Marshals Service.
Their deployment Sept. 21 quickly quelled what the Federal Bureau of Investigation called in court documents here "pervasive looting" on St. Croix, the worst hit of the territory's three main islands.
Most of the marshals have been withdrawn, but military police from the 18th Airborne Corps patrol in camouflage fatigues and purple berets, and many nervous residents said they want them to stay.
Although casualties on St. Croix were relatively light two killed and about 80 hospitalized as a direct result of the storm property damage was far worse than that suffered by Californians in the recent earthquake there, relief officials said.
As many as 90 percent of the island's buildings were damaged, communications and transportation were knocked out and, for a time, St. Croix's 55,000 people were simply cut off from the world.
"If California had 15 seconds of terror, this was 12 hours of terror," schoolteacher Pat Oliver said. "As far as we knew, the rest of the world had disappeared."
Maj. Gen. Robert Moorehead, commander of the Virgin Islands National Guard, said of the scene on the morning after the storm, "In all my military experience, I had never seen anything like it. It appeared to me that we had been the victims of a nuclear blast."
Not only was Christiansted strewn with uprooted trees, broken utility poles, shattered cars and tons of debris from buildings that looked bombed, but the verdant tropical island suddenly had turned brown. So strong were Hugo's winds that most trees still standing were shorn of leaves.
This desolate, end-of-the-world landscape and sense of isolation contributed to the disorder that followed, authorities said.
However, some residents want the federal government to investigate the performance of the government and security forces of the Virgin Islands, a U.S. "unincorporated territory" with about 110,000 residents. Of the three main islands, all purchased from Denmark by the United States in 1917, St. Croix is the largest.
The breakdown in order after the hurricane also has prompted much soul-searching about the behavior of Crucians, as people of St. Croix are known, since the looters included not only poor residents of public housing projects but also prominent citizens.
The U.S. attorney's office has charged 15 such persons with offenses ranging from grand larceny to possession of stolen goods. They include a former St. Croix senator and gubernatorial candidate who was police commander in Frederiksted at the time of his arrest, the vice president of a bank, a Christiansted civic leader and a restaurant owner.
FBI special agent Harry Brandon, who headed the federal law-enforcement team sent to help restore order, said the cases focused on alleged "major" looters, adding, "There was no way we could identify and prosecute thousands" who participated in looting.
Among Crucians calling for an investigation is Michael Yohn, a retired Foreign Service officer. "My impression is the Virgin Islands government will try to stick its head in the sand and forget about it," he said of the chaos. "What we had here was an absence of any kind of civil control and massive civil disorder under the American flag. It doesn't happen very often, and when it does, it ought to be looked at."
The breakdown also precipitated a stream of angry letters to local newspapers criticizing Virgin Islands public officials, notably Gov. Alexander Farrelly and Moorehead, a Virgin Islands native who retired as an Army colonel in 1987 to take command of the 900-member Guard unit.
Another target of ire is Ron de Lugo, the islands' delegate in Congress, who attempted "to play down the devastation done by the looting," according to one writer of a letter to the editor of the St. Croix Avis.
Defenders of the territorial government, based on nearby St. Thomas, have contended that media reports of the looting overshadowed the extensive destruction.
Residents insist that Hugo's winds gusted at more than 200 mph and spawned highly destructive tornadoes. Moreover, the storm stalled over St. Croix, moving at about half of its previous speed and unleashing its fury over a longer period.
At the Hess oil refinery, the largest in the Western hemisphere, the wind crumpled huge storage tanks like paper cups and sucked out the oil. The crude was spewed over a wide area, contaminating beaches and water supplies. Damage to the refinery is estimated at $100 million.
As of last week, less than one-fourth of electric power had been restored, as crews from a half dozen states and Guam battled severe logistical problems. About 26 percent of a debris-clearing project on public roads had been completed, and efforts to clear private property had not begun.
"We face a massive dig-out operation before we start with the recovery phase," said Steve Singer, the Federal Emergency Management Agency coordinator for St. Croix. "We're just getting out of the emergency phase. Some of these projects are going to take months and years."
For many islanders, however, looting compounded the tragedy. "The economic impact . . . will be felt for years," said one recent letter to the Virgin Islands Daily News. "But more important, we have disgraced ourselves in the eyes of the world."
Although the history of racial friction on the island, where 85 percent of the population is black, inevitably intruded into the debate, officials and residents generally concurred that most of the looting was motivated by greed.
"I lay it to complete, rampant, hysterical materialism," real estate agent Bruce Wilson said of the looting.
The plunder started on the day after the Sunday night storm, as panicky islanders sought to stock up on food. It quickly degenerated into a free-for-all grab of all sorts of consumer goods that some witnesses likened to a "feeding frenzy." With no police or National Guard members attempting to restore order, many looters stole merchandise and trashed stores.
Although personal violence was rare, some occurred. An American dentist was struck on the head with a 2-by-4 while trying to photograph looting, and one alleged looter was fatally shot by a store owner in Frederiksted. The best-organized merchants proved to be Palestinian immigrants who took up arms and manned rooftops and barricades to defend their stores.
At times, looting took on what several residents described as a "carnival atmosphere." In one shoe store, looters were seen trying on shoes to make sure they took the right size. Others carrying stolen goods under their arms would stop in the street to chat, witnesses said.
Among those arrested is Capt. Adelbert Bryan, Frederiksted police commander and a prominent politician who won 35 percent of the vote in the last election for governor. The FBI charged him with looting building materials from a lumber and hardware store.
Albert Bryan Sr., a bank vice president not related to the police chief, was arrested with his wife on charges of looting various items, among them, according to an FBI inventory of property seized at his home, a riding lawn mower, a window air conditioner, a scuba mask, a video game and two rubber rafts.
Another family opened a business after the storm selling looted items, some with Woolworth's price tags still on them, court documents said.
Restaurateur Michael Harris was charged with taking jeep loads of food and beverages from two grocery stores to supply his Ritz Cafe, the target of an informal boycott since his arrest.
Most troubling for many people, however, was the apparent insouciance of the police and National Guard, some of whose members were looters, witnesses said.
"I watched people looting while Gen. Moorehead was standing right out there directing traffic" a couple of blocks away, one U.S. law-enforcement official said angrily. At one point, the official said, "a guy with a National Guard uniform told me to go into a store and 'take what you need.' Why? Because the National Guard was looting, too."
In an interview, Moorehead staunchly defended the Guard's preparedness and performance, insisting that "you've got to make priorities, and the first priority was protection of life." He said he "saw the beginnings of looting on Monday afternoon" and "witnessed rampant looting" the following day, but lacked manpower to stop it. He said about 85 guardsmen reported for duty after the storm out of an "available force" of 490.
Moorehead, 48, who described himself as a "crisis management" specialist at the Pentagon before Farrelly proposed he take over the National Guard, said he never saw guardsmen "involved in looting." However, he added, it was "reasonable to assume" that, since the force "is a reflection of the community," some "lesser disciplined" elements did participate.
© Copyright 1989 The Washington Post Company