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'The struggle is real down here': Many US Virgin Islanders are still waiting for FEMA's help

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The once-picturesque ocean view outside Jahmeala Dawes’ living room windows is now a jumble of downed trees and debris. Her address is spray painted on the house's siding so FEMA inspectors could find it.

“It's still a sight to see,” Dawes said. “It makes me emotional. It's hard to stomach being home like this.”

When Hurricanes Irma and Maria ripped through St. Thomas in September, Dawes and thousands of others lost their homes to the Category 5 storms. Two months later, 73 percent of residents lack electricity, cell service is still spotty, and traffic lights aren't functioning across much of the territory.

"I feel like the people down here are really resilient, so you wouldn't hear it as much, but the struggle is real down here."
Jahmeala Dawes, St. Thomas resident

In October, President Trump praised the federal response in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. But on the ground, residents describe a far slower recovery process.

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Dawes and her mother lived in their St. Thomas home for 23 years before Irma blew out the windows and soaked all their possessions. What they could salvage, they moved into a corner of the living room and covered with a tarp.

"It seems unreal at times... I still have dreams sometimes about the house I grew up in," Dawes said.

It will cost thousands of dollars to repair the damage done to her home, and homeowner's insurance only covered the remainder of the mortgage owed to the bank. For now, Dawes is living with relatives in a low-income housing unit in another part of town.

Making matters worse, Dawes was laid off from her job at an orthopedic surgical center and is still waiting for unemployment compensation.

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“Obviously nobody's gonna really wanna do surgeries like that with no electricity,” Dawes explained.

With private insurance not providing enough to cover the costs of rebuilding, Dawes applied for assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She said it was a month after she submitted her application before FEMA inspectors visited her home. She hasn't been notified whether she and her mother are eligible for a grant to repair their home.

Virgin Islands downed power lines

To qualify for assistance for uninsured losses, FEMA inspectors must first survey the home to determine the extent of the damage. More than two months since the storms, many residents Circa spoke with are still waiting for inspectors to visit their homes.

"Everything in St. Thomas is hurry up and wait," resident Perez Alejandro said of the delays. It had been five weeks since he applied.

FEMA told Circa the average wait time in the U.S. Virgin Islands is three to four weeks. By contrast, the wait period is 13.5 days in Florida and 7 to 10 days in Texas.

An added challenge in the Virgin Islands is the lack of reliable internet and cell service. The agency established recovery centers across the three islands for those unable to apply online or through FEMA's hotline.

FEMA, which says more than half the number of housing inspections across the territory are now complete, acknowledges it's a far from perfect process.

"For a territory that spans several islands, the challenges are multiplied,” Federal Coordinating Officer William Vogel said in a statement.

So far, FEMA says, it's doled out roughly $11.5 million in assistance to more than 34,000 individuals and families who have applied for assistance.

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St. Thomas resident Honcho Nickeo isn't one of them. His roof fell in, and the rest of his house sustained moderate damage, but he says he didn't qualify for federal assistance.

"I'm doing everything on my own. I don't depend on them, because I know it's a bunch of talk."
Honcho Nickeo, St. Thomas resident

Without electricity, or even a generator to provide some relief from the island's sweltering temperatures, Nickeo has adjusted and become used to a new normal. He's using a five-gallon solar shower meant for camping to bathe himself in his backyard and now sleeps on his couch next to a portable fan. Garbage pickup services haven't returned to his neighborhood, and he's noticed rats roaming around near the trash.

Despite the challenges, Nickeo says he's staying put.

"I love my home. Regardless of the hurricane, I ain't going nowhere," Nickeo said.

Jaheahlah Outside

After two months out of a job, Dawes was recently hired as a receptionist at a physician's office. With a steady paycheck, Dawes is hopeful that she and her mother can begin work on their home as soon as January.

"If I didn't have a goal before, I have one now, and I'm gonna make sure it gets rebuilt if that's the last thing I do."
Jahmeala Dawes

Chris Castano contributed to this report.

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