SOURCE: COSMOPOLITAN by Hannah Smothers
OCT 10, 2017
"St. John is and always will be home."
COURTESY OF SIOBHAN MULVEY
It all started because Tessa Louis needed to get off the island. She was eight months pregnant and had just ridden out category-5 Hurricane Irma in a closet at her boyfriend's family villa on St. John, the island where she was born and has lived most of her life. The morning after the storm, she walked across St. John — the smallest of the U.S. Virgin Islands with 4,000 residents and just over 20 square miles — to find the apartment she and her boyfriend moved into only four days earlier torn apart. The baby nursery she'd just finished decorating was uninhabitable.
Louis went in search of drinking water. The island was leveled. She walked past fallen trees and washed-up boats to the clinic in town, but it was closed due to storm damage. An EMT in the parking lot was able to check her vitals and ask about the baby's movement that day — she had some minor cuts and bruises and the baby seemed OK — but he couldn't help much more. There was hardly any place to take a shower, much less deliver a baby if Louis went into labor.
COURTESY OF SIOBHAN MULVEY
Louis's sister, Abby Chilson, was out of the country, traveling around southeast Asia, when the hurricane struck St. John. When she saw pictures of the devastation, she and her girlfriend paused their trip and spent 24 hours Facebook messaging everyone they knew back in St. John to ask for help getting Louis off the island. Tenesha Keyes, a 33-year-old St. John resident, and one of the few who had access to a generator and an internet connection, saw Chilson's pleas. Her friend, Meaghan Enright, a 34-year-old who's lived on St. John for 12 years, had been in contact with someone in Puerto Rico with boats, Keyes told Chilson. She promised they would find Louis, wrangle the first boat to come to the island in the two days since the storm, and get her safely to the dock.
By the grace of God, there were exactly 40 people on the dock.
But word that a boat was coming spread quickly on the small island. Government aid, Tim Duncan, Mike Bloomberg, and Kenny Chesney's foundation would all eventually show up to help in the weeks to come, but at this point, the people of St. John felt like the world had forgotten them. Within hours, Keyes and Enright were helping Louis and 14 other people with pregnancies and other medical needs get off of St. John.
"All these people were at the dock, and I was like, 'I don't know what to tell these people, I don't know if there's room for them on the boat,'" Keyes says. The boat captain told Keyes he could take 40 people. "We boarded the immediate evacuees, and then it was first come, first serve. By the grace of God, there were exactly 40 people on the dock. Two days after Irma, we got 40 people out." The boat took the evacuees to Puerto Rico, which hadn't been hit as hard by Irma. There, they could get medical care, check into hotels, or get a flight away from the Caribbean. (Meteorologists hadn't yet predicted that Hurricane Maria would hit Puerto Rico 12 days later.)
Since then, Keyes, Enright, and their friend Siobhan Mulvey have helped more than 1,200 people evacuate St. John. Because communication around the island has been so difficult, Keyes says they never knew for sure how many boats were coming, if they were really coming, and how many people could fit. "People were sitting out [on the dock] from 7 in the morning in the hot sun for eight or nine hours," Keyes says. "If a boat didn't show up, they didn't get to go, and I had to go out there and tell them they're gonna have to try again tomorrow. The days that everyone got out, those were good days."
In the past month, the women have organized themselves into a grassroots disaster relief group that they call Love City Strong, made up of 10 islanders who are working to restore a shred of normalcy to an island Keyes says will never be the same after hurricanes Irma and Maria very nearly washed it away. (Love City is a nickname for St. John, and ever since the storm, #LoveCityStrong had been trending on Facebook around the island. They've recently applied to get Love City Strong non-profit status.)
Love City Strong's advantage over the outside groups that have come to the USVI to help is that they're all local and are familiar with the island's landscape, but being local is also a disadvantage. Both Keyes and Mulvey lost their own homes to Irma's 200 mile-per-hour winds and have been staying in different places every night.
"My entire roof had blown off," says Mulvey, who's 26 and lived on St. John for five years. "I walked in the front door, and my mouth was agape. I just sat down on my bed and cried for, like, five minutes." Keyes's home next door was in even worse shape. But within 24 hours, Mulvey's friends and family stateside started reaching out and offering the women places to stay. Right now, they're both living in a villa that's usually rented out as a vacation home but is obviously vacant for the time being.
COURTESY OF SIOBHAN MULVEY
Now that transportation to and from St. John has gotten easier as the island works to rebuild, the women work directly with aid groups and VITEMA — the Virgin Islands local FEMA group — to get supplies delivered to the people still on St. John. They also focus on recreating moments of time that feel normal for the 2,500 residents who remain on the island, by Mulvey's estimate — something aid groups don't do. One of the first things the women did was clear off a basketball court that was covered in storm debris.
"Within minutes, kids were out on the court playing basketball," Enright says. "You could just feel the attitude of the island kind of pick up."
The estimates for when electricity will return to St. John are so wide ranging they seem hopeless. Keyes says officials have been guessing anywhere between two weeks and four months. At any rate, the island will be in no shape for tourists on November 1, traditionally the start of tourism season and the main source of St. John's economy. The water off the island's famed white sand beaches is still so filled with debris that it's unswimmable. Enright says she won't feel like her home is back to normal until she can go out and swim in the ocean, and it could still be weeks before that happens. And she still hasn't taken the boards off her windows. She's terrified another hurricane will form and destroy what little of St. John is left.
I thank the girls for the safety of my baby.
After Tessa Louis made it to Puerto Rico, she caught a flight to stay with family in Massachusetts. Her baby boy is due on October 23, the same as his dad's birthday. Her husband traveled back to St. John this week to assess the damage and rebuild his family's local business, but Louis doesn't know when she'll be able to join him — she doesn't want to risk her baby's health in a place without running water, electricity, or a fully functioning hospital. She pauses, then echoes the loyal sentiments that made Love City Strong work: "We will all go back to St. John. It is our home. St. John is and always will be home."
For now, Louis is just thankful she got off the island when she did, two weeks before Hurricane Maria destroyed it even more. "I thank the girls for the safety of my baby," she says. "They are true heroes, and my son will know how hard they worked to make sure he and I were safe. I treasure that I have these bad ass women in my corner."
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