Before heading off to St. Thomas to convene a symposium at the University of the Virgin Islands, Bill and Hillary Clinton visited two sites on St. John that are emblematic of the island’s recovery efforts. They were accompanied by 10 donors to the Clinton Foundation, key members of community organizations that responded to Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and a slew of reporters.
They stopped first at the home of Adele Thomas, whose house on Jacob’s Ladder was rebuilt through the Resilient Housing Initiative, a program that grew out of a partnership among the St. John Community Foundation, Love City Strong, the St. John Angel Network, and All Hands and Hearts-Smart Response. Thomas and her family moved back into their home last Friday, almost 20 months after the hurricanes struck.
“With each passing day, the Resilient Housing Initiative makes progress returning vulnerable St. John residents to storm-hardened homes. As of today, we have completed 12 homes across the island, and the teams are hard at work on 12 more,” according to a statement issued last week by Love City Strong. “With the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season upon us, it is more crucial than ever to get as many homes as possible [secured] with safe roofs.”
The program was designed to help the most vulnerable residents on the island rebuild after the storm.
“Although there has been a substantial amount of federal aid and public assistance dispersed to residents throughout the territory, navigating these complicated systems is an arduous and difficult task for the most vulnerable of St. John residents, and qualified contractors on island are limited,” said Meaghan Enright, director of Love City Strong, shortly after the program was initiated.
During a discussion with the Clinton Foundation Monday afternoon, Enright spoke of the especially high costs of construction on St. John. President Bill Clinton responded, “It’s not just the labor costs. You want to build it back better, and FEMA can only reimburse what was being lost.”
The RHI has also helped families on St. John by bundling together small jobs, according to Tom Secunda, a co-founder of Bloomberg News and a supporter of Love City Strong through the Bloomberg Group.
The Bloomberg Group, working with Kenny Chesney’s Love for Love City Foundation, Love City Strong, the St. John Community Foundation, and government agencies, were all on hand to escort the Clinton Foundation’s entourage to their second stop, a depot for emergency supplies located not far from Cruz Bay.
The depot is one of three that have been situated throughout the island to provide residents with food, water, lumber, and other critical equipment in the event of another storm.
Following Hurricane Irma, St. John was cut off from St. Thomas, even more so from mainland United States. It was two days before helicopters and boats began to arrive with critical supplies from St. Croix and Puerto Rico.
“We’re so small, and so isolated. We’re a good model for how to respond [to disasters] in isolated communities,” Enright said.
“It takes a long time to learn how to do this. It’s like a laboratory,” agreed Secunda, who owns a home on St. John.
Secunda said that Love City Strong has provided stipends and trained teams who remain on island during hurricane season. These teams have already started canvassing homes to determine residents’ needs.
After a storm, they will fan out through the island, going house-to-house to preliminarily assess damage and share information on resources available.
“You need people right after a disaster to walk around and say, ‘This isn’t safe,’ or ‘You need a tetanus shot,’” said Secunda.
Jeff Quinlan of the Love for Love City Foundation added that the emergency response models developed on St. John could easily be scaled up and deployed on St. Thomas and St. Croix.
“There are people who could do it there,” said Secunda. “They just might need a little leadership.”