Perspective, Five Years On.

By Meaghan Enright

Marking anniversaries can be a complicated thing, particularly when it comes to disasters. Do you mark a date? An hour? A minute? Is it appropriate to remember the moment the devastation began, or the moment it ended? The St. John community and the greater US Virgin Islands were hit by Hurricanes Irma and Maria two weeks apart, to the day, in 2017. Do we mark the 6th? The 20th? Both?

Today, as I reflect on September 2017, I find myself wanting to mark different dates. I want to remember the dates on which this community came together, the dates that showed just how remarkable the residents of this Territory are. 

I remember the St. John community gathering on Friday, September 8th, in Mongoose Junction, having come together to assess the damage and begin trying to rebuild. I remember restaurant owners, managers, and staff making plans to utilize this generator and that walk-in and these kitchens, to ensure that free food was available for whoever needed it. That same day, I remember getting the first message that help was coming – not a formal alert of any kind, but a message from a friend, telling me that private boats were coming from Fajardo, Puerto Rico, to bring supplies and help with evacuations. I remember helping to organize a system that put 40 people on that first boat, and I remember the captain and crew telling us “we’ll be back tomorrow, first thing, with more boats”. From the first moment, relief was rooted in community. 

I remember on Saturday, September 9th, more boats arriving from Puerto Rico, and also from Christiansted, St Croix. Small fishing vessels and larger charter vessels, laden with supplies donated by individuals and families who wanted to help and so donated their own emergency supplies. None of us knew then the true cost of these donations. I remember hugging friends and strangers, and putting them on boats and sending them on to whatever was next. I remember the flexibility and generosity of those who could have put a stop to the whole effort based on “protocol”, but who instead chose to acknowledge there was a need, and to let a group of well-intentioned volunteers find solutions. 

If I’m honest, the next 10 days are a bit blurry, and I’d be hard pressed to put a date to most of my memories. But I remember how bright the stars were at night, with no man-made light to dim them.

I remember the 7 am meeting during which we found out Hurricane Maria was going to impact the Territory as a Category 5 storm, and I remember the way the air went out of the room. 

Out of all the extraordinary things that happened in September of 2017, one that will always stand out is this: The day the ports were to close ahead of Maria, the crews from St Croix made one final trip. Even as a Category 5 storm bore down on St Croix, they came to St. John with more relief, then went home to haul out and batten down for their own disaster. I cried on the dock, with gratitude and astonishment and more than a little bit of fear, not knowing when, or if, we would see each other again. 

I wrote on September 16th, 2017, “…for now, I can only say that everything has changed and yet the core of this place I call home remains the same, full of love, a strong sense of community, and the drive to rebuild.” Five years later I remain in awe of the strength and yes, resilience, of this community. One thing I know for sure is that as we move into a future of ever more complex and layered disasters, magnified by climate change and human development, it is critical that we remain committed to community-rooted resilience solutions.