The U.S. Virgin Islands were shattered by Hurricane Irma, which ripped through the islands on September 6 as a category 5 storm. Irma was one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the Atlantic, and it has left a humanitarian crisis in its wake.
The Virgin Islands are comprised of St. Thomas, St. John, St. Croix and Water Islands with 100,000 residents. Even before the hurricane, with 29 percent of its residents living in poverty, this U.S. territory had a higher poverty rate than any of the 50 states.
Now infrastructure throughout the islands has been demolished, roads are not passable and the power grid is devastated. People are homeless, hungry and huddling together in structures with no roofs. There is looting and robbery, and rescue teams are scarce. People are in survival mode.
It is reported that on St. Thomas and St. John Islands, about 80 percent of the islands are destroyed. The only hospital on St. Thomas is horrifically damaged.
The islands’ main source of income is tourism, which will take months to restore. Many people’s livelihoods have been destroyed.
Bishop Herbert Bevard, head of the Diocese of St. Thomas that encompasses the U.S. Virgin Islands reports that the situation is dire. St. Thomas, where he lives, looks like it has been bombed out. He has not been able to even communicate with some of the parishes on other islands, but he knows that St. John took an even more direct hit. He does not fully know yet what level of damage diocesan properties sustained in the storm, and, he admits, this is not his main concern at the moment.
Bishop Bevard said the Catholic soup kitchen, located downtown, is open constantly and feeding many people. The two church-operated homeless shelters are packed.
He said no one on the island will be able to work for months, which means that the Church’s core activities are in jeopardy. He will need funding to keep the lights on, pay electricity, pay staff salaries, fund charitable outreach for the poor and keep Catholic schools open for the children.
Among the devastation there is one small blessing — Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral on St. Thomas sustained minimal damage, which the bishop credits to the recent renovation that Catholic Extension helped to fund to fortify the building and make it more hurricane resistant.
But the Church’s immediate concern is sustaining human life. People are without food, water, housing. They are frightened, devastated and desperate for help.
This is the time for the Church to feed, shelter and comfort people. To help with basic human needs. To prepare people to meet the oncoming challenges. To remind them that although this storm was strong, God is even stronger.
Catholic Extension has been supporting the U.S. Virgin Islands since 1964. One of the island’s past shepherds was Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston. Last year he reflected on his time as bishop of this Caribbean diocese operating on an annual budget of $30,000 and scrambling to respond to Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
He said, “After Hugo wreaked destruction on all the islands, our churches, schools, rectories and convents were destroyed. We were six months without electricity and telephones, and a year without television. I was grateful for all the help we received from Catholic Extension at that time. After the hurricane, the public schools were closed for two years. I opened the Catholic schools in two months, using tents.”
Like his predecessor, Bishop Bevard is surely facing a long road to recovery. But with the generosity of others, they will be able to restore order to the Church and to people’s lives, to bring hope and healing.