CORAL BAY, U.S. Virgin Islands — "Hello, good morning," said Dan Snyder, a first responder combing St. John, a Caribbean isle hit so hard by Hurricane Irma that one aid worker described it as looking like an A-bomb went off. "You all okay?"
Lucia Francis, 62, sat outside her sister’s yellow wood home, her right hand swollen from an injury she sustained while holding her front door as Irma ripped it off. Her roof is down the street. Her Frigidaire peeked out from the debris field where the rest of her house once stood.
Aid workers asked to see her hand.
“No, no, I’m okay, I’m fine. It’s nothing,” said Francis, a born-and-raised islander, holding up her hand, which had just one finger wrapped with a simple Band-Aid. She survived the storm by running to her 2009 Ford pickup.
“Maybe I’ll lose a nail. It’s fine,” she said. “Right now, all I need right now is a tent.”
They call it island perseverance. A sense that you wouldn’t live here if you couldn’t take the pitfalls along with the pleasures. Irma is testing that perseverance to an extent many here never thought possible. But St. John’s notoriously self-sufficient residents are pushing back.
There is no electricity, and there won’t be for months. So what? If you don’t have a generator, get one. If you can’t afford it, get a tent.
No bathroom? No problem. “The woods,” said one islander who planned to set up a tent by his destroyed home. “For cooking, look,” he said, pointing at the ruined landscape of downed trees. “You can’t say we don’t got firewood.”
On Wednesday, hundreds of first responders — the U.S. military, the National Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA and a legion of volunteers — combed St. John, taking on the herculean task of ensuring that citizens of the devastated U.S. territory are accounted for. As of Wednesday, 30 people were still missing. Authorities suggested, but would not confirm, that there had been one or more fatalities.
Obstacles are formidable here, even in the best of times. There are no real addresses on the island. Directions amount to turning right at the gnarled tree.
But the gnarled trees are gone or unrecognizable. Irma’s winds didn’t just knock them down and take their leaves. They stripped their bark off. There is virtually no cellular service, no power, no landlines. Emergency 911 numbers are down. A relief WiFi network that went live Tuesday kept collapsing.
Despite a large-scale clearing operation, decimated trees and downed power lines clog sections of roads. On Tuesday, authorities found one elderly man, a U.S. military veteran, languishing in the rubble of his wood-frame hut. He had come back from his shelter in search of his heart medication. They did with him what they’re doing with most dire cases — airlifted him out.
There are more than a few people in desperate need. Here in Coral Bay, the island’s second-largest town and located in St. John’s east end, the sheltered harbor has become a soup of broken boats. Disconnected residents streamed down to a makeshift aid center at the local fire department.
Many businesses here are giving away what food they have. But in other cases, being cut off from the world means a cash-only society. The only pharmacy working on the island has stopped accepting insurance, and desperate locals turned out to the fire station on Wednesday looking for help. For now, it has supplies of some medications, such as insulin. But the ice used to keep it fresh is melting, and the station's generator is down. There is no cellphone reception to notify federal authorities, and anyway, Wendy Davis, a Virgin Islands firefighter, lost her phone in the storm. The radio is broken. But they're trying to do the best they can.
“What’s wrong, how can I help?” Davis asked as a frantic elderly woman approached.
Donna Traina, a native New Yorker and recent island transplant, explained that her husband needed medicine for Crohn’s disease, and the pharmacy was asking $3,647.
“I don’t have it,” she said. “And my husband is on oxygen 24 hours a day. We’re running out of gas for our generator.”
Asked why she wouldn’t leave the island, she shook her head. “My husband! He won’t leave. He just refuses. I just retired,” she said, her voice cracking. “I’m 74 and we worked all my life for this. And then God sends us Irma! My husband just won’t leave.”
Yet on an island that takes pride in a do-it-yourself lifestyle, when aid workers sought to help the somewhat less needy, they sometimes found the needy didn’t want help. During one house inspection, aid workers encountered a man who walked out of the shell of a house smoking what appeared to be a marijuana cigarette.
“All good here,” the man said. “I’m just waiting on a tent.”
“I had one woman yesterday with a huge hematoma that took 20 minutes to be drained,” said Sean Riggins, a New Jersey police officer volunteering in the St. John’s aid operation. “She was like, “I’m fine, go help someone who really needs help.”
Snyder, a Colorado firefighter who volunteers for Global DIRT, a sort of nonprofit SWAT team for disaster zones, cruised down winding mountain roads, dodging downed power lines and trees behind the wheel of a gray pickup. “I was at Hurricane Katrina,” he said, exhaling air. “I tell you, this rivals the damage there.”
On an island where communication technology has failed, the best way to find folks in need is old school: Ask around. He gets a tip from some younger islanders trying to clear a debris field about an elderly couple nearby who might need help.
“Good morning, hello?” Snyder called out. John Tira, an 82-year-old islander, ambled up to greet him.
“How you doing today?” Snyder said.
“Oh, well, my back ain’t too good these days,” Tira said.
Snyder paused. He meant the hurricane — the fact that he’s got no power, no phone and blown-out windows.
“Oh, well, we’re okay, we can’t get the generator working, but she’s cooking coffee and tea with the gas,” he says, pointing to his 74-year-old-wife. “The only thing I really miss is the ice.”