When Hurricane Irma slammed through the U.S. Virgin Islands on Sept. 7, former Savannahian Christie Register, her daughter, Meg Baggett, and dozens of friends and neighbors were holed up inside a condominium in a 5-acre resort property on the tiny island of St. John.
With Irma on the way with St. John in its sights, Register and other full-time island residents did their homework and decided to hunker down in the area above the town of Cruz Bay.
“We studied the layout of the resort (Sirenusa) and picked the villas we thought were the safest, tucked into the mountain,” Register said. Register, her 23-year-old daughter and others took shelter in a rear bedroom that had only one window. When the Category 5 storm came blasting through, it brought 150 mph winds, according to reports.
“It was crazy,” Register recalled. “Insane high winds. I’m so thankful we were at Sirenusa. It’s like a bunker. Some of our friends were terrified during the storm.”
A little more than a week after the hurricane nearly leveled the island, Register said she is “shocked at how well we’re doing.” Only a day after the storm hit, Register and the others were relieved to see U.S. Navy choppers flying around the island. The Red Cross, Coast Guard, Army, Marines, military police and FEMA also arrived to assist those in need and to maintain order, she said.
Some looting and robberies have occurred, but Register said she feels safe and is “being very cautious.” She is hopeful that power is restored to the island soon but knows “realistically it could be a month.” She and her friends have a generator to charge cell phones and run the refrigerator, a fan and a small air conditioning unit that they use sparingly.
Roads on the island have been cleared and her temporary home has water, she said.
“Our cistern is at the top of the property so the villas below it have running water,” she said. “Thank the Lord for that. City water also is on. The people out of town have cisterns so they are OK too. We can run a washer and then hang clothes on the line. It has definitely been a change.”
Register first visited St. John in 2013 and after several return trips was convinced that one day she would move to the island paradise. For years, she had owned and operated a busy Savannah law practice and had been a registered nurse before becoming an attorney. Two years ago, Register sold her practice, took the plunge and moved to St. John, nicknamed Love City and the smallest of the three Virgin Islands. Register now owns a small vacation rental company called Vaca St. John and loves island life.
“What makes this place so special is the nature and the fact that so much of the island hasn’t been developed,” she said. “The culture and daily life is laid back and summertime never ends.”
Nearby St. Thomas is a popular port of call for cruise ships, many of which offer excursions to St. John, which is accessible only by boat and approximately 60 percent national park. In 1956 Laurence Rockefeller donated his St. John property to the U.S. National Park Service, under the condition that the lands had to be protected from future development. The majority of the people who live on the island are entirely dependent on tourism, which came to a screeching halt when the storm targeted the island.
“A lot of people have left because it’s not so great now,” Register said. “We have a core group that is staying but most of us are worried because there’s very little way to make any money. Soon, though, insurance people and construction workers, etc. will be here and we can kind of function again.”
Many of the West Indians who have been on the island all their lives are staying in houses that are either destroyed or heavily damaged, Register said, adding that she hopes church mission groups will come to the island and help the St. Johnians “get a sound roof up.”
Recently, Register met an elderly man named Doc who is staying at his house despite the fact that the entire roof is gone.
“Another lady (named Audelle) was born and raised here, and lives here with her three children,” Register said. “She is staying and desperately needs help (manpower and supplies). These houses are small, so it won’t take much.”
A typical day for Register and her friends means “lots of sweat because it’s pretty hot,” she said. “We all pitch in.” She and the other “locals” started clearing roads the day after the hurricane. The Navy brought in a crew to really clear out the debris. The car barge is running so dumpsters are being emptied.
”Some of us go to the shelter (at a school) each day to see if we are needed. I popped in today and all seemed to be fine. I’m trying to help as much as I can.
“We have lots of cleaning to do in our own houses,” she said. “A few people at our compound lost their houses, hence nothing to clean. But our crew hits the ground running each day. We’re still pretty exhausted, but it’s nice to see the progress each day.”
All things considered, Register said she and the other St. John stalwarts are “doing great.” She is determined to stay on the island and has a bit of advice for stateside people who want to help.
“The best thing anyone can do is to plan a trip as soon as we are ready for visitors, which I hope will be in a few months.”
The once lush green tropical island is brown, but will be green soon, she added. “I’m already seeing new sprouts.”