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'We kind of just got overlooked': How an island you've likely never heard of survived the hurricanes


Not long after Hurricane Irma struck her home on Water Island, Millie Lovett was confronted with a fairly basic problem. She’d used all of her towels and bedsheets to mop up the rainwater in her home.

“It’s the little things that matter,” Lovett said. “When you live through two Category 5 hurricanes, you realize what you need because you're here.”

Water Island, a 500-acre piece of land in the Caribbean, is home to just over 100 residents. It’s the smallest of the main U.S. Virgin Islands, which also includes St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix.

When Hurricanes Irma and Maria tore through the tiny community in a span of two weeks in September, residents were left dependent on each other and any donations that came their way. The problem was, many of those well-intentioned donations weren't items that were actually needed.

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

"A lot of people sent fans you plug in," Lovett explained. "Well, we [didn't] have power."

Lovett drew up a list of exactly what she and her neighbors needed, including battery-operated fans. She flew home to Missouri to raise money, and put the word out on social media about a GoFundMe campaign.

The donations starting rolling in. In all, she raised $35,000 that she put toward generators, gas, mosquito spray and other supplies.

"I just knew that I could get it faster and quicker," Lovett said.

Water Island 1

Acquired from a Danish business conglomerate in 1944, Water Island now is a small residential community — so small it lacks a hospital, hotel, gas station and school. If residents need groceries, they have to venture off island to nearby St. Thomas.

"We're used to taking care of ourselves," Water Island resident Heidi Erwing said.

Erwing, who with her husband runs Heidi's Honeymoon Grill, one of two restaurants on the island, points out that Water Island residents were self-sufficient before the storms. When the hurricanes struck, the community banded together to clean up the beach, clear the roads and organize a potluck to make sure everyone had enough to eat.

RELATED: After natural disasters like Irma and Maria, low-income communities pay a steeper price

While a sense of normalcy is slowly returning to Water Island, the community is in need of serious rebuilding. Damaged houses are a common site. Downed power lines are still strewn on the sides of some roads. The storms also ripped the palm trees from the otherwise picturesque main beach.

“There’s no shade on the island anymore, “ Christy Jacobson said. Jacobson moved here from Colorado a few years ago in search of a safer, distraction-free community in which to raise her eight-year-old son.

In the two weeks following Maria, Jacobson had no cell service, and therefore no way to reach her family back in Mississippi. She said her grandmother was especially worried because she hadn’t seen much about the U.S. Virgin Islands on television.

“You know, it's like, 'Hi, we're here. We exist,'" Jacobson said. “We're part of the United States. We pay taxes, you know?”
Christy Jacobson, Water Island resident

When the hurricanes made landfall in September, the U.S. Virgin Islands received far less media coverage than Texas or Florida. in the weeks that followed, they were overshadowed by the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Puerto Rico.

And that was before donor fatigue set in. Zach Wolgemuth, who oversees disaster response for the United Church of Christ, is concerned about the people he says fell through the cracks after the initial wave of disaster relief.

“Oftentimes, after the news cameras have left is when the really difficult work of recovery begins for many communities with folks who have unmet needs,” Wolgemuth said.

One of those unmet needs his team identified on Water Island was, in fact, water. To provide a long-term solution to the lack of clean drinking water, as well as cut down on trash from bottled water, he and his team distributed water filters to homeowners.

“Things will never be the same again here in Water Island, or in USVI, right? This will forever change the landscape of the communities that have been impacted.”
Zach Wolgemuth, Executive for UCC Disaster Ministries
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As they wait for the resources to rebuild, the economic toll is weighing on the U.S. Virgin Islands. The government estimates uninsured hurricane-related damage across the four islands will exceed $7.5 billion. Meanwhile, the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority is continuing work on the island's battered power grids.

After more than 70 days without power, the lights on Water Island came back on just before Thanksgiving. The rest of the U.S. Virgin Islands chain wasn't so lucky.

The electric utility set a goal of restoring power to 90 percent of its customers before Christmas, but as of mid-December roughly 40 percent were still without service.

RELATED: Basic health care is still a problem in the US Virgin Islands, months after the hurricanes

Brian Leard, a journeyman lineman from Arkansas, was in Jacksonville, Florida, when Hurricane Irma hit. He says the recovery effort in the U.S. Virgin Islands doesn't compare.

"Being in the middle of the Atlantic, it's not like restoring power to Florida, where in a day's drive, you have everything," Leard said.

He and other linemen said a lack of resources, including bucket trucks and poles was slowing down their work. With trucks reportedly held up in customs, they got around Water Island in golf carts.

“You don't hear [about] any of this in the mainland, and then we got here, and this is bad,” Leard said. “It's the worst that I've ever seen.”

Water Island - 2

In the aftermath of Irma and Maria, thousands left the U.S. Virgin Islands for the mainland. But Millie Lovett stayed, and says she has no intention of leaving.

As a way of remembering her ordeal, she added a new tattoo to her leg — a pink and blue map of the U.S. Virgin Islands. On it are the words "VI Strong."

"If I'm old and 85, and I lose my memory, I want to be able to look down at this and realize that I went through something that was life-changing," she said.

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