Last fall, Caribbean island communities were devastated by three of the strongest hurricanes in recorded history. The storms’ 100-mile-per-hour winds crushed buildings and flooded streets. Thousands of people in the region are still homeless, and two Bethel residents decided to do whatever they could to help.
Last October, Shana Silcott and her boyfriend Tom McCallson took off from Bethel with $1,200-worth of checked luggage. Their bags were stuffed with canned food from AC, electric fans, and other emergency supplies. Their destination? St. Croix: a tropical hub in the U.S. Virgin Islands that was flattened by Hurricane Maria.
Silcott grew up on the island and most of her family still lives there. She hadn’t been back home in five years. When the plane landed in St. Croix, she was shocked by what she saw.
"It’s a lot to take in," Silcott said. "You realize that it’s real when you’re there. It’s heartbreaking and scary."
Silcott’s family survived the storms, but her mother was running low on food and left St. Croix to live with Silcott’s sister in South Carolina. Her father’s roof was ripped off and replaced by what Silcott called a “blue roof.”
"It’s a blue tarp that they staple to your roof," she said, sounding frustrated. "And you figure out how you’re going to fix it [on your own] whenever you can."
Silcott and McCallson helped where they could. They patched roofs and poured cement. They distributed food to the elderly relatives of Silcott’s friends and to complete strangers who needed it. McCallson fixed what he said felt like an endless number of generators.
The couple was shocked by the both scope of the destruction and the government’s response to it. Like Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands are a U.S. territory, but Silcott said that the federal relief effort is completely insufficient. Most St. Croix residents haven’t had power in months. It took the couple two weeks to access a working phone and the one working hospital in the Virgin Islands is understocked. Silcott said that her friend’s mother ran out of her medication over a month ago and is managing her high blood pressure with herbal remedies.
And the scores of people killed by Hurricane Maria? Silcott and McCallson claim that a lot of them haven’t been buried yet. There weren’t any medical examiners to do the autopsies.
"The result is that was that they were stacking them in freezers," McCallson said.
St. Croix’s problems pale in comparison to Puerto Rico’s, said Silcott. At least St. Croix still had some water and food. The two tried to fly home through San Juan, Puerto Rico on October 20 and got stuck there.
"It was like a war had just ended and everybody was trying to find their way out," Silcott said. "Everyone with their kids. The grandparents that can barely walk are all wandering around this airport, trying to figure out, 'How are we going to eat tonight? What are we going to drink for water?'"
"I spoke to several people in the airport who had been waiting for weeks, waiting for airplanes to get out," said McCallson.
The couple headed back to St. Croix and stayed there two weeks longer than planned. Silcott said that she's lost faith in the government's ability to respond to a large-scale crisis, and she does not think that anyone else should trust them either.
"When things get bad, make sure you have food stored in the house and water stored in the house, because at the end of the day there’s no one there to help you," she said. "It comes down to the community sticking together."
Silcott and McCallson went into debt on their trip, and they don’t think that they’ll be able to get back to St. Croix for another few years. They plan to help Silcott’s family from afar in any way that they can.