From underneath a pile of debris, Marley Thomas finds what he’s been looking for: a waterlogged stack of photo albums. They're some of the few possessions he managed to salvage from the apartment he used to share with his mother.
Before the hurricanes, the Tutu High Rise, a public housing complex in St. Thomas, used to house 235 families. Today, many homes look like they've been bombed.
“I didn't [think] it would have happened,” Thomas said of the back-to-back storms. “I lost everything. I didn't pack no bag, no nothing.”
On September 6, Hurricane Irma reduced his home to its bare bones, ripping off the walls and windows. When Hurricane Maria hit a few weeks later, it took what remained.
All Thomas has left is the pair of sneakers he goes to work in, a couple of shirts and some pants.
“I don't know if it's gonna ever get back to how it used to be,” he said.
Months after the hurricanes, the U.S. Virgin Islands are still struggling to recover. More than 50 percent of homes lack power, and cell service hasn’t been fully restored. Tourism, which accounts for more than 30 percent of the GDP, has left many out of a job.
When natural disasters strike, low-income neighborhoods pay a steeper price. People already struggling are less likely to own health or disaster insurance, or have the resources, such as a car, to relocate if their homes are destroyed. That’s a concern in the U.S. Virgin Islands where an estimated one in four people live below the poverty line.
Disadvantaged neighborhoods can have a harder time bouncing back, as was the case in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. Because homes were valued less than in other communities, federal assistance payouts after Hurricane Katrina weren't enough for most residents to rebuild. By June 2015, just 37 percent of households returned, while the rest of the city has regained some 90 percent of its pre-Katrina population.
Low-income individuals are also less likely to own their own homes, which means they could be less eligible for disaster assistance. When Hurricane Sandy pummeled the East Coast, three New Jersey nonprofits found that aid plans were biased toward homeowners and underestimated the number of mostly Latino and African-American renters who had been victims of the storm.
One of the biggest challenges facing the U.S. Virgin Islands is what to do about the homes and businesses that weren't built to withstand extreme weather. Prior to the hurricanes, the Virgin Islands Housing Authority was in the process of remodeling the Tutu High Rise, which was built in 1974. Now, it plans to demolish the entire development and rebuild it to be "more resilient," according to Lydia Pelle, Chief Operating Officer at the Virgin Islands Housing Authority.
"We could not certify safety for individuals if we were to rebuild those units the way they are," Pelle said.
In the meantime, displaced renters have relocated to other public housing units or are renting private homes or apartments using Section 8 vouchers.
Shakia Alexander’s unit sustained only minimal damage, so she chose to stay for now.
"I'm not leaving the island 'cause this is where I'm from. Part of rebuilding is staying here and helping however you can help."
Life isn’t the same for Alexander and her three children. She no longer buys meat out of fear her refrigerator will lose power again, and she always keeps spare bottles of water, matches and candles in the house — just in case.
But her new normal has its upsides. Without a television or way to charge their tablets, Alexander said she and her kids have spent more quality time together.
"You get to do stuff that you're not used to. You get to bond more with your family," Alexander said.
Check out related stories from Circa:
'The struggle is real down here': Many US Virgin Islanders are still waiting for FEMA's help
Basic health care is still a problem in the US Virgin Islands, months after the hurricanes
After 2 weeks without power in Puerto Rico, eating candy for dinner is the new norm
No roofs, no relief and constant rain: rebuilding Puerto Rico's isolated mountain towns