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HomeNewsLocal newsWhat Happened Here in 2023: A New Year’s Retrospective Part: 4

What Happened Here in 2023: A New Year’s Retrospective Part: 4

In the journalist tradition, the Source offers a look back at the biggest stories of the past year, as determined by readers and by staff.

Parts onetwo and three of this four-part series cover the months of January through September 2023.

 

 

October

The Port Authority announces a $250 million public-private partnership with Royal Caribbean Group to add a third berth at the cruise ship dock in Crown Bay and to triple the size of the site’s shopping area, which caters to tourists.

Bret Gilliam, an icon in the world of deep-sea diving and of photography, dies at age 72. The long-time St. Croix resident founded V.I. Divers in the early 1970s. His underwater films and still photos appeared in outlets across the globe; over the years, he worked with the U.S. Navy, National Geographic, The Deep Abyss, and the Discovery Channel, among others, as well as producing and editing several of his own publications.

The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas welcomes a new leader, Rabbi Julia Margolis.

The V.I. National Guard celebrates its 50th anniversary. Over those five decades, it has responded to every major disaster in the territory and has deployed members overseas to assist other communities.

The community is shocked and saddened by the death of Fire and Emergency Services Director Daryl A. “Mousey” George, Sr., 55, after a sudden illness. Tributes pour in from across the territory and flags are flown at half-mast.

There is a ground-breaking ceremony for what is to be the Hampton by Hilton hotel on property leased from the Government Employees Retirement System at Havensight. Developer Sean Miller of Standard Aviation is spearheading the project, which is designed as a five-story, 126-room hotel catering to overnight visitors.

Former Sen. Alicia “Chucky” Hansen dies at age 70.  She served 11 two-year terms in the Legislature.

Dominating October – Water Contamination

Routine testing found dangerously high levels of copper and lead in some parts of St. Croix’s potable water distribution system, prompting a declaration of a state of emergency, Health Department screenings,  and a government-wide investigation and mitigation efforts.

Of 66 sites originally tested, 35 were found to have lead contamination and 15 had high copper levels. Up to 3,800 households were estimated to be affected. Further testing confirmed the problem did not originate at the reverse osmosis plant supplying the water and was not present throughout the distribution system.

“We think a significant factor at play here is stagnant water in the water lines,” said Andrew Smith, WAPA’s chief executive officer. Many customers rely on their own cisterns as their principal water source and draw from the utility only as a backup. That means the water may sit for weeks or months in the pipe, allowing time for significant leeching from the pipe to contaminate it.

Because young children are most vulnerable to lead poisoning, the V.I. Health Department offered free screenings for children up to the age of six. By mid-December, 1,270 had been screened; just two tested positive and those cases were not immediately linked to the water. “What we found is that the lead screening aligns with the results of water sampling and that there is minimal lead in the potable water system,” Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion said.

The V.I. Health Department tested more than 1,000 children for blood lead levels after lead was discovered in some potable water distribution lines. (Photo courtesy of V.I. Health Department)

But even isolated instances illustrate the need for immediate action, officials warned. “It is probably six months to several years to totally eradicate this problem,” the governor said.

November

Figures released at a Port Authority Board meeting show the territory’s cruise ship business has effectively recovered from the drastic drop caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Cruise passenger arrivals shortly before the pandemic in fiscal year 2019 (Oct. 1, 2018-Sept. 30, 2019) were 1,710,477. They dropped to a fraction of that when COVID hit. In the most recent comparable 12 months (FY 2023), they climbed to 1,695,000.

Track star Michelle Smith signs with the University of Georgia following a stellar summer in which she won medals in numerous regional competitions, including gold medals in both the 400-meter and 800-meter races at the Carifta Games.

Michelle Smith signs her letter of intent to the University of Georgia. (Submitted photo)

In the ongoing saga of the sting operation that resulted in the arrest of former Premier Andrew Fahie and other British Virgin Islands officials, Kadeem Maynard is sentenced to 57 months and five years of supervised release. The smallest fish in the net, he took a plea bargain and is expected to testify for the prosecution. Fahie and Maynard’s mother, the former BVI Ports Director Oleanvine Pickering Maynard, still await trial. All three were arrested in 2022 on charges they were conspiring to set up a major drug smuggling operation with people they thought represented a drug cartel but who were really law enforcement officers.

V.I. Republic Party Chairman Gordon Ackley survives an attempt by some members to oust him, and the rift in the local organization continues to mirror tensions in the national GOP.

St. Croix attorney Lee Rohn files a class action suit on behalf of more than a dozen residents, seeking compensation for the lead and copper contamination discovered in some potable water lines. The complaint asserts that Seven Seas Corporation, which produces the desalinated water, and WAPA, which distributes it, were both at fault.

Fall-out from Jeffrey Epstein’s infamous sex trafficking in the Virgin Islands continues with a new case filed in federal court in New York. The class action suit by several of his “Jane Doe” victims alleges that territorial officials knowingly abetted Epstein, the multi-millionaire financier whose primary residence was an enclave on Little St. James island that he used in an elaborate trafficking scheme. He died by suicide in prison in 2019.

The 2023 Atlantic Hurricane Season comes to a close without a major storm having affected the territory, despite that the number of named cyclones was “above normal” according to compilations by Colorado State University.

A map for cyclone tracks illustrates heavy activity in the 2023 hurricane season. (Photo courtesy of the National Weather Service and CSU tropical update)

Rosemary Sauter Frett, the prominent V.I. real estate broker who fled the territory in 2010, leaving behind an escrow account that had been emptied of an estimated $2 million in client’s money, and who was arrested by the FBI in San Diego in 2014, on charges of embezzlement, grand larceny and obtaining money under false pretenses, is sentenced under a guilty plea arrangement with the V.I. Justice Department. Other than a few months of time served while she awaited trial, she receives no jail time. She is sentenced to 75 hours of community service annually for as long as she takes to make restitution of $564,355, during which time she must wear an electronic monitoring device. She also is ordered to sell some property she owns.

Marine scientists surveying V.I. reefs find that the unusually warm waters of the summer have resulted in coral bleaching that rivals that which hit the islands in 2005. Tyler Smith, chairman of the territory’s coral reef monitoring program and a UVI professor, says it is too early to know whether the ultimate reef damage will be as serious as it was 18 years ago when vast amounts of coral eventually died because of the bleaching. That may become clear in reef surveys in early 2024.

December

The Elections System announces dates related to the Sixth Constitutional Convention. Fifteen delegates are to be chosen during the General Election Nov. 5, 2024, when voters go to the polls also to elect legislators and fill other offices. The Constitutional Convention is scheduled to convene in January 2025.

The community mourns the loss of Audrey Thomas-Francis, a retired judge who long headed Superior Court’s Family Division and a former assistant U.S. Attorney in the territory. She was remembered for her dedication and compassion.

The National Weather Service issues a weather report for 2023 documenting unusually high temperatures in the Virgin Islands. Among the findings is that the territory suffered through 142 “heat advisories” and 67 “excessive heat warnings” in the past year. St. Croix endured 20 days when the temperature reached 95 degrees Fahrenheit and broke daily heat records for 72 days. St. Thomas saw 127 days (and nights) when the temperature never got below 80 degrees.

Closed since 2019 and rededicated in June of 2023 after a renovation costing in excess of $355,000, the Elaine Ione Sprauve Public Library and Museum in Cruz Bay is closed “until further notice” for electrical repairs, according to the Department of Planning and Natural Resources.

Government officials gather for a ribbon-cutting after completion of major renovation of the library in Cruz Bay in June. Six months later it is closed for repairs. (Source photo by Amy H. Roberts)

Stephanie Barnes, a former employee of the V.I. Casino Control Commission, is sentenced to 44 months in prison for the theft of government funds. In the same case, her boss, Violet Anne Golden, the head of the Commission, pleaded guilty to misappropriating nearly $300,000 and was sentenced in January 2020 to 24 months.

Friends mourn the death of Mary Gleason, a longtime leader in St. Thomas’ tourism industry and an active member in many community organizations, including Rotary, United Way, the Humane Society and the Chamber of Commerce.  A Chicago native, in 1969, she moved to the island where she worked for Bluebeard’s Castle Hotel and then for Frenchman’s Reef Resort.

President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden arrive on St. Croix to once again enjoy a low-key holiday between Christmas and New Year’s. Biden has spent numerous vacations in the Virgin Islands, most of them on St. Croix.

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