‘Like a bomb went off’: Irma survivors describe horror in Caribbean

Image: St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

Damaged houses line a hillside Monday in Old Tutu following Hurricane Irma in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Erika P. Rodriguez / The New York Times via Redux Pictures

“It was insane. The green island we knew was gone — it’s all brown. All the trees are bent in half. It’s like an alien universe, and it’s going to take a lot of work to rebuild,” she said.

“It’s going to be a long time before any of us aren’t afraid of the wind anymore,” she said.

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Dixon Strickling managed to evacuate with her family to Puerto Rico with the help of some volunteers, but said she worried about what would happen her friends and neighbors still back on St. Thomas.

“We are U.S. citizens, and the U.S. government needs to come and help. They need to send a visible force to make people feel safe so they don’t do desperate things,” she said.

The Defense Department said Tuesday that about 4,600 service members were supporting relief efforts in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. And the Coast Guard said Tuesday that it was working with partner agencies to send aid and supplies to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

But U.S. officials said at a news conference that “communications is also an issue, particularly down in the Virgin Islands.”

Residents of both St. John and St. Thomas described ordinary people clearing roads, helping rebuild, giving supplies to their neighbors most in need and using their own boats to evacuate others.

In St. John, Alfred, the nurse, said people were donating their own diesel fuel to keep power running at the damaged hospital.

And in St. Thomas, Jenny Hawkes, executive director of the nonprofit My Brother’s Workshop, said the agency and volunteers were giving out food to hundreds of people over the last few days through donations from the organization, the Salvation Army, private entities and even local restaurants.

Hawkes, 32, the mother of two children, said she lost her apartment but was focusing on relief efforts.

“We immediately said we’ll start the feeding program the very next day,” she said.

Conn Davis, 33, said he and other people in St. Thomas used chainsaws to clear roads, assisted federal workers and tried to procure boats for evacuations and supplies.

“The island has been totally destroyed. It looks like a bomb went off everywhere,” he said.

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. military were helping to rescue people blocked in their homes by debris after residents cleared the roads of fallen trees, according to Davis, who said he helped organize such efforts.

Davis added that he and a few friends had been traveling back and forth from the island to provide food and other relief to hundreds of people in the British Virgin Islands.

“We heard there were starving in [the island of] Jost Van Dyke and that nobody had gotten to them yet,” he said. “We needed to get to them, because nobody was taking care of them.”

While he had seen a big U.S. federal presence on St. Thomas, Davis said he believed the local government was not doing nearly enough.

“The islands are in real duress and need help, and it’s not getting done by our local government. There are a lot of people out here working hard, but we need people to help us help ourselves,” he said.

A representative of the U.S. Virgin Islands government did not immediately reply to a request for comment Tuesday, but officials

said in a statement that Gov. Kenneth Mapp had asked FEMA for “immediate help” in getting ice and large tarps on the ground.

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