ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands
More than four months after back-to-back hurricanes shredded the roof of his house, Charles Caines feels as if he’s “living in a tent in the jungle.” Sleeping under a blue tarp draped on the roof’s steel beams, he and his wife are fending off lizards, frogs, rats and mosquitoes in what remains of their home.
Caines spent much of his life stockpiling his paychecks of up to $700 a week to buy a home. Now, the 72-year-old worries that the Category 5 storms that took his roof also blew him and an entire generation of Virgin Islanders out of the middle class.
“I’m now going to die in debt,” said Caines, who expects repairs to his home will cost $100,000, far exceeding his savings or expected insurance payout.
“It feels like hell,” he said. “I didn’t get the assistance I needed, and now I’m out here suffering.”
With similar stories of grief and hardship throughout St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix — the three major islands that make up the territory — there
is growing concern that a decades-long drive to build up a broad middle class has been snuffed out by the storms.
If Congress and the White House fail to deliver a massive infusion of cash to the islands, analysts warn, this Caribbean paradise could quickly unravel into a permanent decline that would send thousands of economic refugees to the mainland.
Residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands are American citizens, but they can’t vote in the presidential general election and have no voting representation in Congress. That can limit the attention that the territory — with a population of 103,000 and a land area about the size
of Philadelphia — commands from the federal government.
“When a hurricane hits a small part of [a] very large state or country, you just move resources,” said Damien King, an economist and executive director of the Caribbean Policy Research Institute. “On islands like the Virgin Islands, there is nowhere to move resources from.”
These worries come after native-born Virgin Islanders, as well as immigrants from other Caribbean islands, made considerable strides in breaking into the middle class, taking jobs in the tourism industry that flourished throughout the 1990s.
Average salaries here nearly doubled from $21,000 in 1990 to $40,000 in 2016, according to government statistics. Poverty rates also dropped from 32 to 22 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
With the islands’ economy, education and health systems now in tatters after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Gov. Kenneth Mapp (I) says he needs $7.5 billion from the federal government to rebuild lives and buildings in the cash-strapped territory.
The storms damaged or destroyed about 18,500 homes and businesses on the islands, including multiple high-rise apartment buildings.
On Jan. 31, in a sign of just how dire the economy is, Moody’s Investor Service said that the territory’s government is likely to default and that its employee pension system will be insolvent by 2023. It assigned the territory the third-lowest of 21 ratings, only one level above Puerto Rico, which declared a form of bankruptcy last year.
“We are not predicting a timing, but I don’t see the numbers adding up any way that they can avoid” default, said Ken Kurtz, a senior vice president at Moody’s Investor Service.
Although the response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to disasters in the Caribbean was widely criticized initially as being too slow, the agency so far has processed more than 33,000 claims for assistance from the U.S. Virgin Islands and distributed more than $600 million for cleanup, emergency housing, rebuilding and loan-assistance programs.
Residents said authorities have made considerable progress in cleaning up. Roads once choked with thick tree branches, jungle vines and utility poles are open. Power has been restored to more than 95 percent of customers, although Internet and cellphone service remains spotty. And cruise ships that are the underpinning of the local economy are once again docking in ports, allowing some restaurants and tourist stands to reopen.
But that daily tourist foot traffic masks the slog facing residents enduring a triple whammy of setbacks — lack of insurance, federal aid limits and job loss as most major hotels remain closed.
For many Virgin Islanders, more than 75 percent of whom are black, the financial hardship now facing them is reinforcing their disconnect from the mainland, which has only hardened after President Trump’s recent slur against some of their Caribbean neighbors.
“Everyone was looking at Puerto Rico, and no one was thinking about us,” said Michael Walker, 48, who is living in a leaky apartment and lost all of his clothing and furniture in the storm. He’s waiting to hear from FEMA about the status of his aid application.
“FEMA does tell you, ‘I’m here to help you.’ But it just doesn’t happen, and what are you going to do? You can’t press them,” he said.
Manuel Broussard, a FEMA spokesman, counters that the federal government has been working with the territory to offer a plethora of assistance programs including emergency food stamps, reimbursement for lost clothing and furniture, and help finding temporary shelter.
The Army Corps of Engineers also affixed watertight blue tarps onto 3,658 damaged roofs, which offer a couple of months’ protection from the elements.
But as is often the case after a major disaster, Broussard said, many people fundamentally misunderstand the role FEMA plays in helping local residents recover from a storm.
“FEMA programs are designed to help the uninsured and underinsured, to help people get back on their feet,” Broussard said. “It’s not a program that will make you whole again. That is what insurance is for.”
Although insurance adjusters have disbursed more than $520 million to Virgin Islanders so far, many residents say their properties were severely underinsured. Policies for even a modest house in this hurricane-prone region can cost up to $1,000 a month, causing many here to take their chances with minimum coverage or high deductibles.
Direct assistance from FEMA is capped at $33,300 per household, as is the case stateside, although contractors say it is far more expensive to rebuild here because of limited supplies and human resources. The average FEMA grant payout so far ranges from $6,000 to $8,000, the agency said.
The result is that disparities between rich and poor that have persisted for generations have become even more glaring.
‘A house of our own’
On St. John, where million-dollar villas cling to hillsides overlooking teal ocean waters and coral reefs, business owners estimated that overall revenue is down as much as 70 percent this winter. But second-home owners are returning to high-end restaurants for lobster dinners and $100 bottles of wine.
For Livio Leoni, who owns Da Livio Italian restaurant in Cruz Bay on St. John, the major lingering post-storm inconvenience is that the island’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection office has not reopened.
Without it, he said, he cannot import the cheese, cured meats and bottles of wine bearing his family name directly from Italy. He instead would have to take a 25-minute ferry ride to St. Thomas to pick up those goods.
“I usually buy the porcini directly from Italy, but now I cannot have it,” Leoni said.
Meanwhile, 25 miles away in Coral Bay, roofs and walls remain crumbled alongside roads. Some residents in this port town, known for sailors and a bohemian culture, sleep in tents on their front porch or in vehicles.
A few hundred yards from the bay, Pearlette Lawrence was sweeping the front porch of the house where she had lived with her husband. The house has no roof, and the couple has been living in a shelter, but they return each day to cook meals and hand-wash clothes.
Before the hurricanes, Lawrence had worked as a live-in maid and health-care aid for an elderly woman who owned the house, earning $900 a month. The homeowner died shortly after the storm, the couple said.
FEMA has approved an 18-month, $2,300 voucher to help the Lawrences find temporary housing. But rental units are hard to locate on a 20-square-mile island, 60 percent of which is a national park.
“We still need some help to build a house of our own,” Lawrence said, adding that someone offered the couple a plot of land but they cannot afford building materials.
Despite the overall income gains here in the years before the storms, the economy hit a setback during the 2008 recession and again after a large oil refinery on St. Croix closed in 2012. The slump saddled the territorial government with $2 billion in debt.
Still, the economy had been rebounding throughout 2017 until the hurricanes. In August, the unemployment rate dipped to 10 percent for the first time in five years.
Then on Sept. 6, Hurricane Irma’s eyewall plowed across St. Thomas and St. John with winds topping 100 mph, damaging scores of roofs. Two weeks later, on Sept. 19, Hurricane Maria scraped past the southern island of St. Croix, taking even more roofs there while dumping more than 10 inches of rain on the islands.
More torrential rain fell in October and November, leaving many houses, businesses and government buildings with extensive water damage. Both major hospitals sustained significant water damage, forcing critically injured patients to be airlifted to the mainland for treatment.
Eleven public schools were damaged or destroyed. The school system also lost a student-led chicken farm, two aqua farms used to produce fresh school lunches, and $3 million worth of musical instruments and band uniforms. As many as 58,000 books that had been sent home with students over the summer also remain unaccounted for, according to Sharon Ann McCollum, the territory’s commissioner of education.
When the school year resumed this fall, McCollum said, the system had 2,000 fewer students than it did in the 2016-2017 academic year, when about 13,000 students were enrolled, with families relocating to the mainland or elsewhere.
A $7.5 billion problem
Mapp, the governor, said his $7.5 billion funding request to the federal government would rebuild schools, hospitals, the energy grid and ports while helping to offset the loss of tourist revenue, which had accounted for 30 percent of the overall economy.
Congress hasn’t responded to the ambitious request, but it has promised $900 million over three years to shore up the territory’s finances. That lifeline could help stave off more-severe job losses because the government is the territory’s largest employer.
On Friday, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it had awarded $243 million to help residents with damage not covered by private insurance, and Mapp’s government has secured $600 million in federal funds to help construct permanent roofs on about 12,000 homes.
“The recovery actually brings a strong level of revenue. It brings strong employment, and it brings serious consumption,” said Mapp, noting that skeptics also doubted the territory’s ability to recover from Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and Hurricane Marilyn in 1995.
Based on FEMA guidelines, however, the Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power program (STEP), launched by the federal government after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, caps most applicants at $25,000 in construction costs.
Local contractors say it will cost at least $50,000 to repair many roofs on the islands, which is one reason Del. Stacey Plaskett (D), the Virgin Islands’ nonvoting congressional representative, is skeptical the program will get off the ground.
She wants Congress to consider individualized aid packages for the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, where Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (D) has requested $94 billion in aid.
“We are saying, listen, this is not like the flooding that occurred during Harvey,” Plaskett said in an interview, referring to the hurricane that struck the Houston area last year. “We had whole roofs blow off, plus enormous shipping and rebuilding costs, and the costs associated with building on volcanic rock.”
But Warren Mosler, a local economist who lives on St. Croix and is running for governor, notes that Mapp’s request for $7.5 billion equates to $75,000 per resident. He doubts Congress and Trump will agree to the request, noting a similar funding formula for Puerto Rico would amount to about $250 billion.
Instead, Mosler said, the territory needs to start “resizing everything” based on the assumption that its economy — and its population — is just going to have to get smaller.
“It’s very difficult to scale an economy down like that, but it has to be done before you get any meaningful bounce back up,” said Mosler.
On St. Croix, the debate about whether to stay or go already is taking place.
At Mahogany Road Chocolate, a roadside stand where well-off residents gather to buy $10 chocolate bars or mango cream sponge cake, Keith Moore and Glenda Smith said couples like them are starting to second-guess their decision to retire in the Virgin Islands.
“Things were hard before, and now you just don’t know what is going to happen,” said Smith, 63, who previously lived in Miami and runs an art project that seeks to beautify the islands by painting murals. “These are my retirement years. Do you want to be struggling the entire time?”
A few miles away in Frederiksted, where most traffic lights still don’t work, Cynthia Rivers said she does not have the option to leave.
A widow and retired cook, Rivers, 65, now takes home $500 a month in Social Security benefits. In early 2017, Rivers combined her life savings of $9,000 with a $5,000 loan to subdivide her house in hopes of earning rental income throughout her golden years.
But Hurricane Maria damaged her roof, meaning she cannot find a tenant until she comes up with at least $25,000 to repair it. She said FEMA gave her only $5,500.
“If you are not here, you just would never understand,” said Rivers, her eyes welling up with tears. “This was my retirement. This was my everything.”