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Picking up the pieces in St. Thomas

Hurricane Marilyn Photo -- NASA

View of Hurricane Marilyn east of Puerto Rico and moving to the northwest. Photo was taken from the space shuttle Endeavour, Sept. 15, 1995.

By CHUCK MURPHY, Times staff writer
©St. Petersburg Times, published September 20, 1995

ST. THOMAS, Virgin Islands -- Past the destroyed homes and businesses on a road littered with the carcasses of $100,000 yachts, a series of trucks carried hope Tuesday through St. Thomas's largest city.


Flatbed trucks, pickup trucks and delivery vans full of it.

On an island with no running water, beer would seem an odd choice. But these are the Caribbean islands -- and the loss of a winter tourist season would leave far more lasting damage than the devastation of Hurricane Marilyn.

After three days of dazed mourning, Virgin Islanders tried Tuesday to get back to the business of making money. Beer flowed, taxis beeped their horns and ferries made the trips between neighboring islands.

It is far from normal. It may take six months before power is fully restored (there is none now), a year before homes and businesses look the same.

"We have the beer now, but it is not cold. There is not enough ice," said Harold Blyden, 45, a taxi driver in Charlotte Amalie. "We would prefer it chilled, but that may take time."

* * *

Time is something the islanders do not have. The winter tourist season begins in earnest in another month. Already, the deserted cruise terminals are bemoaned by taxi drivers and shopkeepers who -- thanks to FEMA insurance -- can afford to lose their homes, but not their livelihoods.

"We can survive about one week without the cruise ships," Blyden said. "After that, things will get hard."

Tampa Bay residents who have grown weary of the constant reporting on this summer's extraordinary tropical storm season should see the Virgin Islands. Hurricane Marilyn, which arrived here late Friday with 115-mph winds, absolutely wrecked the place.

St. Thomas

Times photo by FRASER HALE

ST. THOMAS -- A house blown apart in a area of east St. Thomas called Tu Tu.

The damage appears to fall into two categories:

If the house was made of concrete with an aluminum roof, the roof is gone. If the house was made of wood, the house is gone.

If a boat was within a mile of land, it is now sailing on asphalt.

Some government estimates said 95 percent of homes and businesses on St. Thomas and St. Croix were damaged. That may be a little high, but not by much. Every hotel and resort on the islands was damaged, including Bluebeard's Castle, which lost a large section of roof; the Wyndham Sugar Bay resort, which lost significant parts of its facade and roof; and the Stouffer Grand Beach Resort, surrounded by downed trees.

But while the boats and aluminum chunks of roof are still scattered all around the Virgin Islands, there are signs of recovery:

  • On St. Thomas, most of the major roadways were cleared of trees and downed power poles. Though there is still plenty debris to maneuver around, travel is possible for the first time since Friday.
  • St. John, where trees were denuded and resorts suffered serious damage, was beginning to look itself by Tuesday afternoon. The sidewalk cafes were serving cold beer and chicken, and music played from generator-powered stereos.
  • Airline flights have resumed, though returning to San Juan, Puerto Rico, from St. Thomas is still a challenge. Tuesday morning, tourists still wandered the wrecked international airport like zombies with luggage. But by late in the day, a squadron of American Eagle commuter planes got out everyone who wanted off the island just as U.S. Army troops were breaking out rifles to enforce a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.

All have a lot of work to do before life is again close to normal. Some have more to do than others.

John Haynie, 56, lives on the second floor of a condominium at Harbor View Villas, high on a mountain overlooking the capital, Charlotte Amalie.

As he huddled in the bathroom with his woman friend Friday night and Saturday morning, he had no idea of the damage being wreaked on his home.

"I stepped out in the morning in about two inches of water and said, "oh s---,' " Haynie recalled. "It was unbelievable. Hell, it is unbelievable."

Marilyn tried to pull a 300-pound refrigerator out the kitchen door. Every food item in the refrigerator was sent spinning around the home or splashing onto the walls.

"A Marilyn cocktail," Haynie called it.

In Haynie's home, and throughout St. Thomas, Marilyn did the strangest things. Mattresses are strung on useless power lines. Wrought iron fences are bent in two against concrete balustrades. The storm untied a knot on a sailbag in Haynie's home, pulled out the huge mainsail and draped it across the roof. The sailbag stayed on the floor, right where he had left it.

"For all the mess, there was an egg sitting on the floor. Unbroken. It was weird," Haynie said.

One of the worst hit areas on St. Thomas is TuTu. There, on the island's east side, a sidewalk leads to a frame house that no longer exists. It is flattened below, on top of a neighbor's roof.

Windows are broken everywhere, partly a delayed result of Hurricane Luis. After that storm passed, without doing much damage in St. Thomas, hundreds of residents sent their plywood to St. Martin, where it was needed for repairs after Luis hit that island hard. So before Marilyn came, plywood was scarce on St. Thomas. Now, it is everywhere -- but in pieces.

"We really were not prepared for this," Blyden, the taxi driver, said. "I am going to put a concrete roof on my house when I fix it. After Hugo, and now this, I'm tired of being wet."

Read about how the St. Thomas ferry boats that once carried news and gossip through the Caribbean Islands become a lifeline in "Boats ferry supplies and good will"

© Copyright 1998 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.