As a small community more than 1,000 miles from the contiguous United States, with at least 40 percent of the population at or below the poverty line, the U.S. Virgin Islands are facing significant challenges following Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017. Thousands need recovery assistance.
UCC Disaster Ministries, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Church of the Brethren have joined forces to respond in the U.S. Virgin Islands through their joint Disaster Recovery Support Initiative. The DRSI works to help communities shorten the time between an immediate disaster response and long-term recovery, and to build disaster recovery know-how among long-term recovery group leadership, equipping them to better respond should there be future disasters.
Hurricanes Irma and Maria crippled water, power and communications and damaged or destroyed thousands of homes in the U.S. Virgin Islands. On St. Thomas, one of the USVI's most populous islands with 50,000 residents, nearly 11,000 homes reported minor to moderate damage, and 545 reported severe damage or were destroyed.
Six months after the hurricanes, there were still thousands without power or water. Many people were living in homes without roofs and overgrown with mold. The storms' negative impact on tourism has meant elevated rates of unemployment - already 10.2 percent before the storm - and an increased cost of consumer goods in a territory where the cost of living was already 24 percent higher than the U.S. average.
The UCC's Response
Over the next 12 months (through at least August 2018, and potentially through February 2019), in partnership with the St. Thomas Recovery Team (STRT) long-term recovery group, the ecumenical Disaster Recovery Support Initiative aims to complete repairs for 100 to 150 households and develop individual recovery plans for 1,000 to 1,500 households. DRSI is focusing on vulnerable population households (elderly, disabled, single parent and low to median income) identified as having unmet needs who are unable to participate in FEMA repair programs and have exhausted the resources available to recover on their own.
- DRSI received a $212,000 grant from the Fund for the Virgin Islands through the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands to support the USVI recovery.
- The E. Rhodes & Leona B. Carpenter Foundation granted $20,000 to the UCC for DRSI.
- All three DRSI partners also contributed substantial funding for USVI recovery. The UCC's cash contribution to date to this ecumenical recovery effort is $175,000.
- DRSI designed a $500,000+ program of support for the St. Thomas Recovery Team to assist the island's residents, especially the most vulnerable, with development of disaster case management, disaster recovery resource management and development and disaster rebuild volunteer coordination.
- Larratt was joined in January 2018 by Tim Sheaffer, DRSI Construction and Volunteer Management Advisor, and long-term United Church of Christ volunteers Marks Beitins and Marcy Magness-Sheaffer.
- As a first and early contribution to recovery, UCC Disaster Ministries provided 900 Sawyer water filters that were distributed throughout the territory by DRSI. This equals 900 million gallons as each water filter is capable of cleaning a million gallons each.
- Realizing there were no local disaster-specific NGOs based in the USVI, DRSI Long-Term Recovery Group and Case Management Advisor Rachel Larratt deployed October 3, 2017, to support the formation of long-term recovery groups (LTRGs), working alongside local community leaders, NGOs and VOADs (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) and both federal and local government agencies on St. Thomas and Water Island.