Are the Virgin Islands Equipped to Handle Hurricane Irma?

The U.S. Virgin Islands sit squarely in Hurricane Alley. Irma will test the storm-weathered islands' limits.
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The mainland United States has weathered its fair share of hurricanes, but it has never been hit by two Category 4 or stronger storms in the same season—at least, not yet.

Hurricane Irma, the strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, appears set to change that. The Category 5 storm is headed straight for Florida just weeks after Hurricane Harvey left much of Texas under water. Irma is expected to weaken to a Category 4 storm before it hits the Sunshine State, but the storm made landfall on the U.S. territories in the Caribbean today at its strongest, whipping the islands with wind gusts topping 200 miles per hour and bringing storm surges of up to 10 feet in some places. Like Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands declared a state of emergency in the lead-up to the storm. The question now is whether the preventative measures taken in the Virgin Islands will be enough to buffer its residents from one of the strongest storms in history.

Despite sitting in the middle of "Hurricane Alley"—a stretch of warm, storm-prone water between Africa and North and Central America—the U.S. Virgin Islands haven't seen a storm of this magnitude since Hurricane Hugo in 1989. While Hugo wasn't quite as strong as Irma—it hit the U.S. Virgin Islands as a Category 4 storm, with sustained winds of 140 mph and a storm surge of two to three feet—it still destroyed or damaged more than 90 percent of the buildings on St. Croix, one of the four main islands that make up the U.S. Virgin Islands. But it wasn't until 1995, after the Category 3 Hurricane Marilyn left 13 dead and at least 10,000 homeless on the islands, that the territorial legislature began to shift its focus from disaster response to disaster preparation.

With storm after storm draining resources for disaster response, the U.S. Virgin Islands developed a plan to ramp up disaster preparedness, and ensure the territory could withstand up to a Category 2 storm. As one 1998 Federal Emergency Management Agency report entails:

With FEMA's support the Virgin Islands Government adopted and implemented stronger building codes designed to withstand sustained winds of 110 mph. The code requires anchoring systems, hurricane clips, shutters and other measures intended to hold buildings together and prevent flying debris during storms. The electrical distribution system was significantly strengthened by burying some of the major trunk lines, reducing the spacing between poles, locating transformers lower on the poles to reduce the wind shear and burying the poles deeper than normal specifications in order to reduce the recovery time following storms. Piers, water production and distribution facilities and oil storage facilities were strengthened.

Of course, Irma is significantly stronger than a Category 2 storm.

As Irma hits the Virgin Islands today, it will likely bring sustained winds of more than 180 mph. "Most structures will fail with wind speeds above 150 mph," says Martin Alperen, who headed St. John's community-based first responder agency until 2006. (A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration station located on Barbuda recorded wind gusts yesterday of 155 mph before the instrument failed in the storm.) "They're probably going to lose a lot of roofs," Alperen says of the Virgin Islands. "My brother-in-law still lives there. I personally built all the wood shutters for his house, but I doubt they are still there."

With predicted storm surges of seven to 10 feet for the islands, flooding is a major risk factor. The list of buildings in the inundation zone for a Category 5 storm in St. Thomas include the airport, an airplane fuel storage building, the sewage treatment plant, at least four hotels, a school, courts, the police station and jail, a senior citizens home, cruise ship docks, a container port and the marina, two public housing projects with over 400 dwellings, and the electricity and desalination plants.

Ahead of the storm, Virgin Island officials began clearing waterways so that floodwaters could drain into the ocean, but in recent years, the government on the Virgin Islands has let some other flood mitigation strategies fall by the wayside. The Virgin Islands Flood Hazard Mitigation Plan, which was last updated in 2016, describes ponds, spillways, and channels on the islands that were constructed between the 1960s and the 1980s by the Department of Agriculture to help buffer against flooding, but were not maintained.

Still, the Virgin Islands' Govenor Kenneth Mapp told The Atlantic yesterday that he was "confident that the territory is ready to shelter in this most serious event," and that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly had assured him that President Donald Trump and the federal government are "paying close attention to the events, that they are fully committed to providing all the resources that the people of the United States Virgin Islands need, and that they will be following up as the event happens." Early Wednesday morning, a few hours before the storm hit the Virgin Islands, Trump tweeted that "his team" was already in Florida, but made no mention of the U.S. territories in the Caribbean.

The Virgin Islands will certainly need all the help they can get. Despite increased disaster preparations, the Virgin Islands are still heavily dependent on the federal government for relief. "One important thing about islands, especially one as isolated as the Virgin Islands, is that you can't have help coming in from the next neighborhood, the next city, or the next state," Alperen says, "because there isn't one." The Virgin Islands already imports almost all of its food, and relies on desalination plants for much of its fresh water. Those plants are likely to be knocked out at least temporarily by Irma. Where will people get drinking water? "Most people collect rainwater; it comes off the roof and it goes into a cistern underground," Alperen says. "Well most of those roofs are going to be gone, most of the infrastructure needed to power that cistern pump is not going to work, so there's not going to be drinking water. The whole infrastructure is going to crumble and you can't get it from your neighbor. The U.S. government would have to do an airlift to bring supplies to the Virgin Islands."

While FEMA is already stretched to its limits, Congress on Wednesday reached a deal on the debt ceiling that will send the agency more emergency funding.

"One boat in the harbor that sinks blocks out the whole harbor. I can tell you that if there's 140 mph winds, there's boats blocking that harbor," Alperen says. The airport is also likely to suffer damage, he adds. "It's going to be a very slow process because nothing is going to work. The phones would go down on a weekly basis anyway; the power would go out on the sunniest of days," he says. "Here in the states they tell people to be prepared for three days, 72 hours. In the Virgin Islands you have to be prepared for longer than that." 

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