“Then war broke out in heaven ….”
In my early twenties, I was invited to visit Sierra Leone, West Africa. After a horrendous flight and stay over in Dakar, Senegal. I landed in Freetown. What a historic city! From Freetown it was an 18-hour drive in a Lorry over primitive roads (although you could not really call them roads) to our destination, deep in the jungle. After about 10 hours on the road, we stopped at a place where there was a huge mound of “stuff” hidden under military camouflage. The guards sold us hot and no-fizzy sodas that were dug out of this big pile. I went over to the pile. All the boxes read “CARE United States of America.”
All of the “stuff” in that huge pile was meant to be given to the indigenous peoples. But it had landed in the hands of smugglers associated with those in government who stole the CARE packages and sold the contents.
What does this have to do with St. Croix?
We talked to several locals and industry people employed to reconstruct the island. They told us of the government stealing money. They told us of how the government is replacing all the telephone and electric poles and then they will replace those poles with composite poles in about a year. Then they will put the utilities underground. No one knew why two sets of poles had to be installed and then torn down.
Stories about how FEMA money, some say $85 million, has been awarded to one company to do the electrical work. And other multi-million-dollar contracts have been given to a variety of companies. Does any of this money translate to help for the locals? There are too many blue tarp roofs left to think that the locals will benefit from the millions. There are only 55K people on the island, you’d think that some of these companies could share the money with the locals. These stories went on and on and on! People are livid about their governor and how he lives like a king, while they have to stand in line for everything. Sounded like Sierra Leone to me!
Living Through a Disaster
Over a year ago Hurricane Maria flattened St. Croix and knocked the air out of most people on the island. Some lost their lives and others lost everything. The entire electrical grid had to be replaced and some phones still don’t work. People have left the island in droves. Some islanders were in their apartments when the wind burst through the windows and tore everything (including cabinets) off the wall. Some lost roofs and all lost power and water. Many homes in St. Croix have cisterns but without power, the water was inaccessible. Our local friend went to bed hoping her condo would still be there in the morning. (We are so thankful that we did not purchase a condo in 2016.)
We were amazed at all the progress the island has made. Yet not all is safe. Curvy two-lane roads are still very dangerous because tall (10 feet tall) grass hangs over rails and the sides of roads are rarely marked. Many street lights are gone. Few street signs remain. GPS is a godsend, sometimes! Food (everything) is extraordinarily high. Cereal is $6.00, Off is $10.99, canned soup is $4.00. Just take your grocery bill and double it, maybe triple it. Every meal at a restaurant is $40 and up without ordering a drink. It takes months to purchase household goods because everything has to be brought in by boat or plane. People wait and wait and wait!
Weeping for Frederiksted
Skirting police who blocked roads for a Triathlon, we made our way to Frederiksted. The water to the west of Frederiksted was so gorgeously blue–our eyes were glued to the horizon. The town itself, while still standing, took the brunt of Maria. Vacant lots replaced homes. Many buildings reach out screaming for help. Roads north of Frederiksted are almost undriveable. We gave up looking for the mysterious monk’s bath because the road was washing away into the ocean, and the huge potholes were swallowing our rented car. But the street facing the wharf where cruise ships dock is almost totally restored.
Tom has talked to several people about their experiences during the Hurricane. I could not ask because I was afraid of the answers. A kind and gentle local who works at the Shack at Tamarind Reef, said that after the storm, you did not come up to people and ask them, “How did you fare?” She said, the first thing that you asked was, “Do you have power?” And then you ask them how they fared.
There is Hope for More Jobs!
British Petroleum is rejuvenating an oil refinery, and some are coming back to work on the island. BP has purchased hundreds of new trailers for the workers that the locals are calling the “man camp.”
(People who live on the island could use them!) It reminded us of Williston, North Dakota during the fracking frenzy. Guys were living in trailers that vented on the ground (no sewer), or in plastic boxes with air conditioners in the Walmart parking lot.
Unfortunately, Violence is Escalating
Two days after we arrived on the island, there were five murders. Locals told us that there have been 55 murders this year. The average per capita murder rate in the United States is 4.9 per 100,000 citizens. The rate in St. Croix is ten times that number.
Unfortunately for me, I could have been one of those statistics. I was standing by our rental car waiting for Tom in Frederiksted, when a car alarm went off about 50 yards in front of me. I looked up and there was this tall dark-skinned man carrying a pillow case full of “who knows what.” He looked at me as he crossed the street in front of me. He seemed too calm. I looked at him. There was nothing I could do to stop him. I froze. A few minutes later two guys ran out to the car. I was very grateful that the burglar did not shoot me!
Locals say the problems begin with drugs and drug gangs from South America and Puerto Rico. They told us that drug boats passed right by our hotel room around 2:00-4:00 a.m. every morning. A block or so from our hotel two Coast Guard vessels were moored. A couple of days later a huge Homeland Security boat was docked near us. They sported four 350 horsepower outboard motors. This was too real! We were spooked. So, we left five days early.
We are hoping that things will improve in a couple of years. Rumors say that the cops are selling drugs out of the trunks of their police cars and standing by while looting takes place. St. Croix is in a battle for its very existence! This is another type of hurricane they have to overcome!
Yet the locals were warm and inviting and hopeful of our return.
As always, this post is copyrighted by Marla J. Selvidge