Islands still face years of recovery.
By Alison Graef
Diego A. Rios, 33, former student at this college, moved to the Virgin Island of St. Thomas in January 2016 with his wife, Stephanie Porto, and 6-year-old daughter, Sophia Rios, after accepting a position as business operations manager for Wyndham’s Margaretville Vacation Club on the northeast edge of the island.
When Hurricane Irma threatened to strike the Virgin Islands, Rios obtained airplane tickets to get the family’s visiting relatives off the island, but ticket prices were so high that he decided to shelter with his family at the Margaretville resort.
“We would have spent thousands just to get out of the island,” Rios said. “It just wasn’t an option to get out beforehand. A lot of flights were getting canceled. A lot of tourists were trying to leave. It was a bit chaotic. So instead, we just prepared for everything.”
Rios and his family gathered two weeks of food and water. When Irma hit the island Sept. 6, the family sheltered at the resort with other employees and about 150 guests. Through the resort’s hurricane-proof windows, the family witnessed the torrential rain and furious wind.
“We put our daughter in the restroom toward the back of the room, and we just hoped that the doors wouldn’t blow open, or something wouldn’t hit the windows or the roof wasn’t blown off,” Rios said. “You get that sense of: ‘Am I going to be all right? Are we going to be OK? Is this going to be enough for us to survive?’”
Rios said the force of the hurricane was greater than he could have imagined.
“You hear about hurricanes, how bad they are. You see the videos,” Rios said. “But once you are here in the eye and you start seeing the wind, the force, and you can’t see more than a few feet in front of you, that’s when you know.”
As the storm battered the island, Rios said their ears kept popping as if they were in an airplane. The resort lost electricity and running water.
The family stayed at the resort for seven nights. Rios said misinformation and rumors circulated without access to the internet, phones, newspapers, radios or televisions.
“It was all word-of-mouth and rumors,” Rios said. “Just pretty much horrible stories like the island going into chaos. They never turned out to be truthful, but of course at that moment, you don’t know. That’s the only information that you have.”
After four days of being cut off from the world, people at the resort discovered a nearby hill had Verizon cell service. Rios borrowed someone’s cell phone to let relatives know they made it through the storm. He said the No. 1 priority was to get off the island.
“Every day we’re trying to make a new plan to find a way out,” Rios said. “And every day it changed.”
Rios said community formed among the people at the resort. Both guests and staff helped with responsibilities such as distributing clean linens and clearing paths. Everyone worked to ensure the people around them were doing well.
On Sept. 12, the family evacuated by speedboat to Puerto Rico. Each person was allowed one piece of luggage.
Rios, who was already employed at the Puerto Rico Margaretville resort, said he planned to see family on the mainland and then return to Puerto Rico to continue working.
Two days before their scheduled flight, news came that Hurricane Maria would hit the island Sept. 20. The family, which already had tickets, packed their carry-ons and flew to Texas the afternoon before Maria hit.
“I was still awake from the trip from Puerto Rico to Texas when I learned that the island had lost all electricity,” Rios said. “And we didn’t think it was going to hit that hard, but it turned out to be bad. And so that kind of eliminated the plan of moving to Puerto Rico.”
Tired and weary from the experience, he and his family were in a restaurant when they ran into two of the guests from the resort.
“We were shocked to see each other, and it became a cathartic moment,” Rios said in an email. “Irma will always connect us.”
Rios, his wife and daughter stayed with various family members in this city for a month and a half.
“After two weeks, you start thinking, you know, ‘All right, what next? Our lives as we knew them before are gone,’” Rios said. “It’s like you write something and then erase it, and nothing’s left.”
With Puerto Rico destroyed, they moved to Pompano Beach, Fla., where Rios now works at Wyndham Palm Aire.
“It’s been just a whirlwind going through this whole storm,” Rios said. “Pretty much every day you didn’t know how the next day was going to look. Three months ago, I was in St. Thomas. A month later, I thought I was going to be living in Puerto Rico. And I ended up in South Florida.”
Rios said many of his friends and acquaintances who were long-term residents of the islands chose not to leave after the storms passed.
“A lot of people that I know are still there,” Rios said. “Every day they have to take showers with just a bucket. They have to try to charge their phones whenever they can or live off of their generator. … People have to learn to live with just the minimum.”
Former student Lauren Barrera, 28, is moving to Atlanta to help some of the Puerto Ricans who came to the mainland for assistance. Barrera said it was hard to leave her job, which she loved, but felt called to help people affected by the hurricanes.
Barrera said it’s important that the continental U.S. doesn’t forget about the destruction in the Virgin Islands.
“I just don’t want these people to feel like they have been abandoned or they’re not getting the care that they need in order to just grasp onto some sort of life again,” Barrera said.
Barrera said a volunteer who was in Puerto Rico before, during and after the hurricane hit told her stories of what it’s like on the island. She said money essentially has no value right now on the island because banks are not operating, and rats are contaminating relief food, making it unusable.
“During the hurricane, there was so much water that it flooded the cemeteries, and a lot of the caskets rose and washed away,” Barrera said.
She said Puerto Rico is facing years of reconstruction after the devastation.
As a case manager, Barrera will help those affected by the storm get their lives back on track.
Barrera said people can help by searching online for organizations that are assisting with recovery efforts. Additionally, she said many local organizations are collecting food, clothing and other basic necessities for people affected by the hurricanes.