In the aftermath of 2017’s deadly hurricane season, you may not have heard much about the US Virgin Islands. With its tropical white sand beaches, deep azure water, and historic rum factories, the trio of Caribbean islands is among the most beautiful places Americans can visit without a passport. All three were leveled after back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes Maria and Irma.
Much of the media attention and federal assistance were directed a little over 100 miles west, to Puerto Rico. “The Virgin Islands have been overshadowed by the devastation of Puerto Rico -- of course, it’s our neighbor and we sympathize with them,” says Felipe Ayala, Chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission of St. Thomas. “But St. Thomas got hit by two storms. Puerto Rico just got hit by one. [This] island is so much smaller and that made the devastation so much greater.”
The official USVI death count from the 2017 hurricanes was five, but the toll on infrastructure was unprecedented. As abysmal as the US response to Hurricane Maria was in Puerto Rico, it outperformed our response in USVI. “The whole Caribbean is jockeying for position,” Ayala says. “We need all the same supplies, but those supplies all come from the same places.”
But the story of the Virgin Islands is not just what’s been damaged and lost, but of what’s at this moment re-emerging. Locals have worked tirelessly to get the islands back on their feet, clearing rubble and sorting through debris. With so much razed to the ground, all the rebuilding of the past year is bringing about an incredible renaissance in USVI.
Everything is re-emerging newer, better, and stronger.
The St. Thomas airport is in the midst of a $230 million modernization, and the electrical grid is getting its own overhaul to make it more hurricane-resilient. In October, two resorts -- Marriott Frenchman’s Reef, followed by Sugar Bay -- finalized deals to rebuild with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, so they can double as hurricane shelters in the future. And all hotels can now opt to charge their guests a small hurricane recovery fee to further help with relief efforts.
There’s still a ton of work to be done -- about half of the hotels are up and running, and the others aren’t expected to reopen until later this year or 2020. But the islands are ready for visitors now. Almost every other sector (restaurants, shops, beaches) is either back up to 100% or pretty close to it.