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US Virgin Islands: The American citizens battered by hurricane Maria – and forgotten

Tina Comissiong Dickson with the US Virgin Islands’ only MRI scanner – now out of action. Photograph: Oliver Laughland/the Guardian

Most of the 100,000 citizens here have no drinkable water or power, but the territory has been overlooked in the storm’s aftermath

By Oliver Laughland in St Thomas, US Virgin Islands

If Irma hit like a right hook, then Maria was the sucker punch, battering the islanders while they were already down. Almost a month after the first of two deadly hurricanes collided with the US Virgin Islands, the recovery is still in its infancy.

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92% of people still have no electricity after Hurricane Maria hit two weeks ago, and many people are trapped by debris and facing a lack of food and water.

Power lines droop over the main roads in Charlotte Amalie, the territory’s capital. More than half of the roof of St Thomas’s commercial airport no longer exists, replaced with sky blue tarps that ripple in the breeze. All the territory’s schools remain closed, with hopes to reopen on Tuesday. Around 90% of the territory is without power and the vast majority of the population are still without potable water.

While the plight of neighbouring Puerto Rico, hit hard by Maria over two weeks ago, has prompted a national outcry in the face of a slow federal recovery effort, the continuing crisis on the US Virgin Islands, home to 100,000 US citizens, has received less focus.

The White House blamed “difficult logistics” for preventing Donald Trump from stopping here during his trip to Puerto Rico earlier in the week. But on Friday vice-president Mike Pence flew into the American territory’s second island of St Croix, where Maria hit the hardest. He vowed that the administration “will be with you every day until the US Virgin Islands comes all the way back”.

The territory’s governor, Kenneth Mapp, a registered Republican who ran as an independent, backed the sentiment. “There is no country that responds to disasters like the United States of America,” he said.

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Things are slowly improving after the devastation of its strongest hurricane on record, but much of the island is still isolated without power and water.

When Maria arrived a week later, with the roof already damaged, the hospital was flooded once again. The water has not fully receded and a few inches cover the floor of the cancer center, where Irma’s winds destroyed the facility’s only MRI scanner. Commissiong Dickson said the hospital had received significant federal assistance, but added that it would take an estimated two years to repair the damage.

Fema has begun to roll out inspection teams. But, said agency spokeswoman Renee Baffles, it had been “very difficult” to reach all the island’s remote communities, many of which have no formal addresses. More than 14,600 islanders have so far registered for assistance with Fema, but there are undoubtedly many thousands more in need of aid.

With no access to the internet and no working radio or TV, Velma Samuel and Tamika Francis had no idea how to contact Fema and apply for assistance. Although the pair had given up hope for their government, they had not given up on the island itself.

“I love my island,” said Francis. “I was born and raised here. So no matter what we go through here, I will never feel like like leaving,”

She turned back towards the rubble and continued clearing it, piece by piece.

The Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. Please go to: www.theguardian.com and make a contribution.



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