ST. CROIX, US Virgin Islands (WFLA) — WFLA reporter Leslee Lacey has been bringing us inspiring and emotional stories from when she followed St Pete Air pilot, Jennifer Lockwood on a relief mission to St. Croix, just weeks after Maria hit the storm wrecked U.S. Virgin Island.
After spending the weekend traveling around the devastation with Lockwood, Leslee saw first hand how communication and red tape can act as a barrier for hurricane victims trying to receive help, and for those trying to provide it.
After meeting up with the Corp of Engineers who are in charge of the Blue Roof tarp program, Leslee made a suggestion that is making a big impact for some hurricane victims.
The Corp of Engineers told Leslee they initially estimated around 13,000 homes across the US Virgin Islands may need these blue tarps over their damaged roofs. It is a temporary solution for storm victims who have their roofs compromised by the storm.
While walking through one neighborhood, Leslee met Crispin Pence, who described surviving in his home the night Maria stole his roof.
“I heard an explosion and I just saw the whole thing lifted off, and take a walk and I sat down and said, ‘Damn Monica, this is the sky I’m looking at.’ And this thing like it was trying to talk to me turning like this ya know, and I’m staring it in the eye, but I couldn’t walk.”
Crispin was stuck inside the damaged house with his girlfriend Monica for days.
When Leslee went inside the home, water was still coming in and it smelled of mildew. Monica said there was flooding throughout the home. More than a week went by and eventually a neighbor brought over a small tarp to help from the water that kept coming in, but the tarp was not the proper size.
Crispin says he eventually made it out of the home when his knee healed. He got some help moving power lines that were knocked down by Maria, and were blocking his vehicle from leaving the yard. Crispin says he made it down to a FEMA site and signed up for the disaster relief Blue Tarp program.
“Our program is really meant to allow people to shelter in place and to get a blue a tarp over their roof as quickly as possible,” explained Colonel Christopher Clark with the Army Corp of Engineers.
But, unfortunately on a hurricane-ravished island, “quickly” can mean weeks and residents may not even qualify for the tarp depending on how extensive the damage is on their roof.
To get the process moving, residents sign up, inspectors come out and approve or deny the home. Then, a couple weeks later, an installation team brings the roof tarp and installs it.
But Crispin, and Monica, like many Crucians had not seen or heard from anybody, and it was more than a week since they signed up. Meanwhile rain continues to come in their home.
One challenge for the inspectors, is that it’s difficult to find homes, and manpower is limited. And for the residents, if they miss the inspector, they would not know whether they were approved or denied.
When asked about the wait time, Colonel Clark explained, “We are living the challenges, the communications challenges on the islands.”
When Leslee arrived on the island less than three weeks after Maria struck, the overwhelming majority of St Croix was without power. Cell phone service was non-existent or sketchy. Street signs were missing, some roads were blocked and many landmarks were destroyed.
Leslee came upon a solar panel field which looked like a debris field. “It looks like a debris field but was functioning solar panels. Look at them all, just completely wrecked.”
So, considering these communication challenges, Leslee asked Colonel Clark if he would create a way to inform victims if their home was inspected.
Clark kept his promise. The Corp implemented a letter that has an approval and a denial area. After residents see this, they still may have to wait around two weeks for installation. But, the letter helps residents waiting in limbo. They will know they need to make other arrangements if they will not be receiving the temporary roof tarp.
When Leslee first spoke with the Corp of Engineers, Clark said they had installed around 200 tarps across the three US Virgin Islands.
Within weeks after that, the number increased to almost 1,000 homes that had received tarp installation.
Meanwhile Crispin and Monica received a tarp the same day from the St Pete Air Pilot, Jennifer Lockwood, who was spearheading a relief effort with donated items flown in from Saint Petersburg.
If you would like to help in the relief efforts for St Croix you can contact FEMA to volunteer and also contact http://www.usvirelief.org to aid in helping the Virgin Islands recover from Hurricane Maria and Irma.
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