After Irma, a once-lush gem in the U.S. Virgin Islands reduced to battered wasteland

A 20-square-mile island in the Caribbean reveals some of the hurricane’s worst devastation on U.S soil.

Helicopter footage over the British and U.S. Virgin Islands shows the damaged left behind by Hurricane Irma on Thursday, Sept. 7 and Friday, Sept. 8. (Reuters)

 The Asolare restaurant is gone, practically blown off its cliff, along with its world-famous carrot ginger soup. The facade of Margarita Phil’s is a junkyard of yellow and vermilion planks. Multimillion-dollar homes and aluminum huts alike lie in ruins.

On the island of St. John, that was only Irma’s beginning. Once a lush gem in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a chain steeped in the lore of pirates and killer storms, this 20-square-mile island is now perhaps the site of Irma’s worst devastation on American soil.

Six days after the storm — some say several days too late — the island finally has an active-theater disaster zone. Military helicopters buzz overhead and a Navy aircraft carrier is anchored off the coast, as the National Guard patrols the streets.

The Coast Guard is ferrying the last of St. John’s dazed tourists to large cruise ships destined for Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico. More than a few locals, cut off from the world with no power, no landlines and no cellular service — other than the single bar you might get above Ronnie’s Pizza — are leaving, too, some of them in tears.

The streets of Cruz Bay, the largest town of this island of roughly 5,000, were a bizarre tableau of broken businesses and boats on sidewalks. Beyond belief, the Dog House bar had not only a generator but satellite TV, and folks streamed in and out, some stepping over debris holding beers.

Debris and destruction caused by Hurricane Irma is seen on St. John Island in the U.S. Virgin Islands. (Anthony Faiola/The Washington Post)

A drive up formerly picturesque mountain roads reveals a landscape of such astonishing devastation that it looks as if it were bombed. Entire houses have disappeared. Others are tilting on their sides. Horizons of waxy-green bay leaf trees on jade-
colored hills have turned to barren wastelands, as if the world’s largest weed whacker had hedged the entire island.

“Hurricanes? We’ve been through hurricanes — lots of them. But nothing, nothing, like this,” said Jerry O’Connell, a Chevy Chase, Md., native turned St. John developer.

And that’s just damage from the weather.

In the days following the storm, lawlessness broke out — here and on other Caribbean islands. Thieves hit a string of businesses. Houses were burgled, entire ATM machines stolen.

In the information vacuum after the storm, rumors flew like Irma’s raindrops. Prisoners had broken free on nearby Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, seized guns and formed armed gangs.

Left largely unprotected and with no way to call the police, some locals began sleeping in shifts. One local blogger, Jenn Manes, called for help on her island blog — help that finally arrived in force Monday. Others jumped on her for sullying the island’s name, because tough times can bring communities together, but they can also divide.

“I know some people were not happy with my telling the truth — that I was scared, that people here were scared,” said Manes as she lined up Tuesday to catch a Coast Guard boat off the island. “It doesn’t mean I won’t be back. We’re going to rebuild.”

On late Wednesday morning when Irma hit, the Virgin Islands, a haven for cruise ships and those in search of a good piña colada, were supposed to get lucky. A former Danish colony purchased by the United States in 1917, the small island cluster had had more than its fair share of cyclones. Their names read like a litany of salty villains: Marylyn, Irene, Hugo.

Hurricane Irma caused massive damage on St. John Island. (Anthony Faiola/The Washington Post)

Irma was supposed to veer to the north, or so thought Joe Decourcy, a Canadian businessman who moved to St. John in 2001. Instead, the storm slammed the island at full intensity, its Category 5 winds of 150 mph racking it from coast to coast. Irma also hit neighboring St. Thomas, devastating the local hospital and homes and businesses across the island. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, only St. Croix was largely spared.

Decourcy, owner of Joe’s Rum Hut, holed up that night in the formidable villa of a friend. Even the multimillion-dollar home could not hold Irma back. They sheltered on the first floor after second-floor windows were sucked out, causing massive flooding.

“The pressure was insane. It felt like our heads were going to explode,” he said.

When the slow-moving storm cleared, Decourcy emerged with other shell-shocked locals to post-apocalyptic scenes of shattered homes, of cars, boats and sides of homes in the street. “We walked around like ‘The Walking Dead,’ ” he said.

A sailboat named Windsong had landed in the street in front of Joe’s Rum Hut. Islanders quickly banded together, he said, sharing food, supplies. But by Friday, the “vibe,” he said, “started to change.”

A boat rests among debris caused by Hurricane Irma on St. John Island, Sep. 7. (Joe Decourcy/Courtesy of Joe Decourcy)

The island was virtually cut off. No cell reception. No power. No WiFi. It also meant there was no way to call the island’s police, and some began to realize it.

Friday morning, Decourcy arrived to start cleaning up in earnest, only to discover the chains to the bar had been cut by bolt cutters. Inside, the registers were smashed open, the safes ajar. He had banked the bar’s cash before the storm. But who knew what else was missing — he did not have the stomach to do an inventory.