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News Hurricane hell: 'Apocalyptic' scenes on St. Thomas

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Video: 'We're Americans, too'

'I was expecting just a bit of wind and rain, nothing life-altering'
Peter Bailey

​UD alum and journalist Peter Bailey outside his parents' home in the district of Nazareth on St. Thomas. He and his brother dodged flying debris to  they carry their father outside in his wheelchair to get to a downstairs apartment. Photo/Peter Bailey

By Peter Bailey
Miami Times
(Reprinted with permission)

The night before Hurricane Irma arrived here on St. Thomas, I exchanged texts with a friend in Anguilla, asking her if I should be worried. I was expecting just a bit of wind and rain, nothing life-altering.

My phone's signal faded before she could share the full scope of the madness I was about to encounter.

In a few hours on Sept. 6, I found myself dodging flying debris alongside my brother as we carried my wheelchair-bound, 80-year-old father to safety. It was an experience I'll describe as nothing short of hell, compelling me not to go there if such a place really exists.

With our hospital decimated, patients have been airlifted to other nearby islands and Puerto Rico, which was on Hurricane Watch Tuesday, Sept. 19. Several prisoners escaped from the prison in Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, causing some to worry that the criminals will invade our shores. One mainland transplant sitting comfortably on her boat over on St. John lamented in People magazine about the "the overwhelming smell of death in the air," instead of calling for aid for those who now need so much of it.

Another transplant family hired private security to block off the road leading to their house prohibiting people from congregating there to call loved ones as the storm has wiped out phone service throughout most of the island. That road is one of the few places where a phone signal can be picked up. Their fears have led to erroneous stories of looting and mayhem when no such thing is occurring. Last week a CNN reporter visited a distribution center where myself and some friends were loading water to distribute to shelters and nursing homes and told us quite matter-of-factly that she came to report on "the lawlessness gripping the island.”

When we told her no such thing was occurring she jumped, left, never to return again.

Our governor, Kenneth Mapp, has met the deluge of complaints and inhumane actions from visitors by telling them to stop whining:

"If you're not prepared to go through these events, challenges in a realistic way, with realistic expectations, I am strongly urging you to take one of the flights or one of the mercy cruises and go to the mainland for a few months and come back," he said.

I am American
Warehouse destroyed

​Irma demolished a Charlotte Amalie warehouse, burying a truck in the rubble. Photo/Peter Bailey

As people residing in the Caribbean's tiniest cosmopolitan oasis of opportunity, we've always found a way to turn such cries into smiles. I'm just heartbroken it took such devastation for the world and, most importantly our neighbors to the north, to take notice, to finally realize, we in the U.S. Virgin Islands, are Americans, too.

Living on the mainland, I have had to explain time and time again that I'm a U.S. citizen. My first year in college at the University of Delaware, a state trooper called for back up when he saw my U.S. Virgin Islands license after a routine traffic stop:

"St. Thomas? Where the hell is that? You Caribbean immigrants are always invading our beloved country with drugs, corrupting our youth," he scoffed.

I emphatically repeated: "I'm a U.S. citizen.”

Well, not quite.

I was elated when I voted for President Barack Obama back in 2008, the first time I ever voted for an American president. Although we are U.S. citizens, we Virgin Islanders have to become a resident of a state – not a territory, as is the Virgin Islands – to be able to vote for president. Since I reside in Miami, my vote counted as a Floridian and not as a Virgin Islander.

Our status as a territory has led to an uneasy and awkward relationship with our Caribbean neighbors who see us as having no true identity. At the same time, they grudgingly envy our U.S. citizenship, however second-class.

We're basically a glorified colony of the United States, a country that celebrates its crusade against tyranny far and wide.

According to a landmark decision rendered from the famed Insular Cases, inhabitants of unincorporated territories may have limited to no constitutional rights.

Purchased from Denmark in 1917 to protect the U.S. mainland from European incursions, our second-class status and the ignorance that reinforces it isn't exclusive to that unruly cop who pulled me over years ago.

Media void
Peter Bailey

​UD alum and journalist Peter Bailey, after Hurricane Irma. Photo/CBSMiami video

It also permeates mainstream media.

Hurricane Marilyn took the first part of my roof in 1995; Irma just took the second half. But mainstream media all but ignored the Virgin Islands before Irma wreaked historic havoc upon us.

My family and I sat their dumbfounded switching between network news channels. It was as if we didn't exist.

In the fleeting moments when the U.S. Virgin Islands was mentioned, reporters painted a scene taken from an episode of Gilligan's Island:

"American tourists on the U.S. territory are being cautioned to hunker down.”


I guess the estimated 100,000 Virgin Islanders who reside between St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John and Water Island are "others" or "locals," as we're called with a tinge of condescension.

Now we see those same tourists and U.S. mainland transplants having to navigate this catastrophe, depending on us "locals" for their survival, and how we've been more than happy to help.

I came home to take care of my elderly parents, as my father's Alzheimer's left him disabled. In fact, I was headed back to Miami a week before the storm, but stayed with my family as a precaution - and thank God I did. As the wind picked up around 2 p.m., my mind drifted to Hurricane Marilyn in 1995. My family, with my father leading the way, ran outside, crawling down stairs to a lower basement as one of the rooms in the house blew away. This time it was my brother and I hoisting my father to safety with my mother and sister following close behind.

Our paradise now resembles the backdrop of an apocalyptic film characterized by crumbled houses, never-ending lines for food and a procession of army trucks out of which a mega-phone blares, admonishing residents to get back home before the daily 6 p.m. curfew. After curfew, construction crews can toil through the night clearing roadways and restoring downed power lines. With trees uprooted and stripped of their leaves, our once lush green forest mirror a brown skeleton portrait, evoking Irma's ghost. The two post offices on the island have been destroyed as well as the ferry boats that take passengers from St. Thomas to St. John where many homes, businesses and the sole junior high school have been demolished.

Since the airport isn't operable for commercial and domestic flights, officials have warned residents to be conservative with food. The arrival of retired NBA star Tim Duncan and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg promising to bring more aid alongside the shipment they brought on a private jet was appreciated by residents, but found more adoration from the press core. Residents have adopted a "do-for-self" mentality during these trying times. Neighbors are going door to door sharing the little they have with each other.

Banding together
Lining up at grocery store

​People line up to enter a supermarket in Charlotte Amalie, the capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Photo/Peter Bailey

With no electricity, running water, TV and internet access, life after the storm is taxing indeed. I've even stared at a few of the stray chickens perusing the island and wondered just what they might taste like roasting over the coal pot I'm using to heat up my canned meals. Those roosters, crowing all hours of the day, are nuisances anyhow.

Before my daydream turns deadly, the animal lover in me snaps me back to reality. Another meal of beans over rice right before bed will suffice as I'm lulled to sleep by chirping crickets only to be awoken by monstrous, voracious mosquitoes.

I've found respite spending my days volunteering at a feeding bank operated by My Brother's Workshop, a nonprofit focused on community enrichment. Local boxer and celebrity chef Julius Jackson cooks up an array of mouth-watering dishes including roast pork, black beans and rice with blackened chicken, which we distribute to families, up to 1,000 daily. Ironically, just back in May, Jackson and I offered inspiration to high school students on the island at my most recent NiteCap show. As a community facing a catastrophe that threatened to completely wipe us out, I'm inspired by our resolve as we've banded together to restore what Irma stole.

It's because there's been some benefit of being disconnected from our American counterparts to the north. The sense of entitlement and bigotry that rips at the fabric of our country isn't given life here. We see human first and color a distant last. My first introduced to racism was upon my arrival to the U.S. mainland.

Now another storm, Maria, is headed our way just threatening to take the little that Irma left. Upon making it downstairs to the lower level of our house, I vowed to my family that we won't suffer another hurricane, but with our airport still closed that's a promise that sadly I won't be able to keep. Several cruise ships volunteered to take more than 4,000 tourists for safe passage to the mainland, but not for the rest of us.

However, I'm sure we'll survive yet again and our humanity will remain, because now that we Virgin Islanders have been forced onto the national psyche, the rest of America stand to gain from the lessons in humanity we're sure to offer.

Story published on 10/1/2017 ; last modified on  
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Used in the Home Page News Listing and for the News Rollup Page

UD grad and journalists Peter Bailey returned to St. Thomas to help care for his family. After helping to carry his wheelchair-bound, 80-year-old father to safety, Maria was bearing down.

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Hurricane hell: 'Apocalyptic' scenes on St. Thomas
  • The Journalism Program
  • 221 Memorial Hall
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
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