Rebuilding an Island

Jul 20, 2018 | Travel

Last September, St. John, the smallest and most remote of the U.S. Virgin Islands, was devastated by hurricanes Irma and Maria. The two storms — 14 days apart — destroyed homes and the island’s only public school. Out of the island’s 103 boats in the harbor, only three remained after Hurricane Irma. Virgin Islands National Park, which spans 60 percent of the island’s landmass, was left in ruins: trees uprooted and leafless; sanctuaries covered in debris; and wildlife left confused and vulnerable without the safety of the lush tree canopy.

Since then, a diligent and devoted home-base of residents have tirelessly put the pieces of their ravished residence back together. And they want you to come see their hard work.

Katrina Morris and her partner Mike Popham recently returned from St. John, and confirmed that the island is indeed open for business. They were invited to stay with their friends John and Helen Faith (read their hurricane survival story here), who have rebuilt their lives after these sister storms hit their beloved island.

“You would think that the devastation would have stalled everyone, but I think it had the opposite effect,” Katrina says. “The destruction brought everyone together throughout the Virgin Islands and inspired their creativity and resourcefulness. I think it made them more productive and a stronger community of similar-minded individuals.”

Katrina says that since the hurricane last fall, all the beaches and hiking trails have been restored. Leaves have returned to the verdant national forest, which Katrina describes as “Red River Gorge on the Caribbean.” Boutique restaurants have popped up along the coast, adding to the island’s culinary culture. The rebuilding inspired more options like Asian-fusion and locavore-style restaurants. Where businesses may have relied on the status quo, in the rebuilding process they were inspired to reinvent and improve.

Cell service and electricity have been restored to the island, but the biggest obstacle has been  the scarcity of building materials and labor. It has created a competition on the island and has led to a vast reduction in the overall population — before Irma the island housed 4,000 residents, but now only 2,000 call St. John home. Many skilled laborers have migrated to St. John from other Caribbean regions, adding to the local economy (especially the lumber industry), but tourism is the bread and butter of this rustic paradise. Until more tourists return, the island’s economy will continue to suffer.

Katrina enjoys a relaxing moment at sea.

Katrina noticed the effects of Irma and Maria in a few ways. First, the island’s tourist crowds were unusually thin. Despite the addition of boutique restaurants and new eco-friendly accomodations, many of the tourist areas were sparsely populated. “One day we went to a secluded beach covered in white sand. We snorkeled all day, saw a sea turtle and barracuda, but didn’t see a single other person the entire time. It was beautiful.”

In addition, Katrina noted there were still several visual reminders of the island’s cleanup. Piles of metal from destroyed roofs and boats peppered the island’s natural landscape, waiting to be picked up and recycled in neighboring Miami. Overall, Katrina feels the rebuilding process improved the island. Many residents added solar panels to their new roofs, cisterns that collect rainwater, and sustainable sewage systems to their properties. “The hurricanes inspired more sustainability and preparedness.”

All in all Katrina recommends St. John to anyone looking for a laid-back, beautiful beach experience. The island offers accommodations from resorts to eco-tents, but if you are looking for all-inclusive luxury, you will need to look elsewhere. “The island is rustic, family-friendly, and filled with roaming goats and chickens. Nothing is fancy or flashy, but it is rich in history and natural beauty. There are hiking trails everywhere, from two miles to seven, white sandy secluded beaches, sailboats, snorkeling, museums, and shopping. But you won’t have to pack more than a sundress to go to a nice dinner.”

Katrina says she will be returning to take in more of the island’s history, from the indigenous culture to Dutch rule, and to spend more time with the island’s people. “The people on the island are such a community. They have put the infrastructure back in place, now they need the tourists to come back.”

 

Planning your trip

  • Katrina and Mike purchased airfare for $500 each from Louisville to St. Thomas (with a connection in Atlanta) through Delta. In St. Thomas they caught a ferry to St. John. Katrina was impressed with how easy and inexpensive travel was; they left Louisville at 7am and were in St. John by 1pm.
  • Peak season is December-January.

What to Pack

  • Water shoes, flip-flops, and hiking shoes
  • Casual clothes (it is 80 degrees all year long)
  • Sundress for dinner out
  • Snorkeling gear (although you can rent it on the island)
  • Sunscreen and a hat

 

Where to Stay

  • There are two resorts on the island, eco-tents for the outdoorsy-types, and a host of vacation rentals varying from luxurious vacation homes to open-air container pods. Most rentals can be reserved for $1,000 a week.

 

Not to Miss

  • Virgin Islands National Park covers 5,000 acres of the island’s undisturbed forest and wildlife
  • The extensive hiking trails throughout the island
  • Pizza Pi, a boat that delivers fresh pizzas via rubber raft to your sail or motor boat.