In a post originally shared on Medium, IBM engineer Rashida A. Hodge, who is part of the IBM Watson team and was featured in Black Enterprise magazine, reflects on the devastation Hurricane Irma has wreaked on her beloved native country of the US Virgin Islands and the psychological torment of waiting to hear from loved ones days after Irma’s landfall:
We were raised on just under 135 square miles, mainly across three major islands scattered in the Caribbean Sea and exposed to the Atlantic Ocean. Combined, we are a bit smaller than Seattle, WA, bigger than Charleston, SC, and almost the same size of Las Vegas, NV! The United States Virgin Islands (USVI) boasts the first place you can see an American sunrise as the easternmost travel point of the United States. While many travel to the USVI to experience the uncontained beauty across our geography, its true beauty is rooted in its people through their deep-seated “Island American” culture. The people of the USVI are why beauty can endure through heartache and hard work; and beauty can thrive through helping hands.
American TV’s Frustrating Lack of Caribbean Storm Coverage
Most people may believe that our heartache began after Hurricane Irma arrived but it started long before. Beauty from heartache is seen in people like my mother, Karen Hodge, who chose beforehand to ride out one of the strongest storms in history at her job in a local nursing home. Her decision contained part compassion and part fear from past experiences with Hugo (1989) and Marilyn (1995). At the nursing home, she would be able to ensure the safety of its patients but also be reassured that she would not endure the storm alone.
My heartache began on Wednesday, September 6th as I gawked at the television for news coverage of Hurricane Irma and its impact on the Caribbean, especially the USVI.
I was confused as news coverage focused on US impact with no real coverage of fellow Americans who were about to be pummeled by a Category 5 hurricane. I was infuriated. How could US news outlets overlook other citizens?
Calling was not an option as lines were busy or down. After getting to my social media feed, I realized island culture kicked in to reveal something beautiful was occurring outside of national media coverage. Live feeds or recent posts on the ground by storm-ridden islanders took over my social media turning it into an instrument of knowledge and compassion. I was able to reach my niece, but the messages she shared gutted me.
“The Roof Might Collapse on Me”
Her last message before our next contact in almost two sleepless, anxiety-ridden days was “I’m scared the roof might collapse on me.” The heartache re-emerged as the storm knocked out electrical sources on the island. While my heartache remained, my feed was still ablaze with other islanders relating, relaying information, sharing concern, sending prayers and comforting many as beautifully as can be expected.
During and after Hurricane Irma the beautiful nature of US Virgin Islanders expanded gracefully into hands-on hard work. Many Virgin Islanders at home and abroad didn’t shed a tear until days later.
I did not hear my mother’s voice until two days later on Friday and it remained peppered with compassion and fear but this time, also with resilience. She explained the trauma of her experience but not without sharing that she wanted to go back to the nursing home to help with clean-up efforts. Friends and family all over the United States and the USVI shared similar stories of some relief and resilience exemplifying an admirable expansion of beauty.
Countering a Crisis With “Active Compassion”
It took full engagement of family, friends and even my employer to get information and resources after the storm! Using all my resources I was able to access sparse cell phone service, determine last location seen and get damage assessments of homes and buildings. All groups came together like a beautiful collage reflective of our attractively, distinct culture. Even with consistent reports riddled with words like “apocalyptic”, “devastated”, “horrific”, or simply put, “really, really, really bad” to describe what US Virgin Islanders faced, conversations ended on an action-oriented high. We are facing fears with faith in God and countering crises with active compassion. As I write this, I wondered if hard work could get more beautiful.
Of the three major Islands, St. Thomas and St. John were most affected. As such, the people of the US Virgin Islands are currently using Facebook pages to organize grassroots search and rescue teams where mainland Virgin Islanders identify people who are missing or unreachable and local Virgin Islanders with cellphone access seek them out. In some instances, like on the island of St. John, local islanders have posted lists of people seen alive on the island on social media.
USVI locals are organizing themselves and clearing out neighborhoods with chainsaws, cutlasses, and handsaws to help local government and federal support get access to those areas. Other Virgin Islanders in remote locations have worked to collect donations to send back home. In these areas and others the prayers are non-stop and that’s hard work! These are just some of the ways we are showing up for ourselves in a beautiful way. We realize beauty is not exclusive to the US Virgin Islands and we like to share in this culture of beauty despite devastation across the mainland and across the world. We can help each other do just that.
How You Can Help the Recovery
We are welcoming gifts now and for the long haul from our fellow Americans and from fellow human beings around the world. The options shared below may help generate thoughts around how you can give.
The people of the Virgin Islands who live abroad are making calls to their employers and networks to assist us in our relief efforts. I’ve reached out to my employer and I would also ask others abroad to approach businesses and corporations within their networks to support Hurricane Irma relief efforts on a long-term basis by adding local organizations to their corporate charitable donation matching programs.
We need help for challenges that we cannot face alone. These include long-term housing, evacuation needs (elderly, severely ill or pregnant), displacement support, nutrition, and addressing increasing public health issues (sanitation, ongoing medical support, mosquitoes, and mental health).
Please support local organizations that have been in our community for decades. Consider the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands or Tim Duncan USVI Hurricane Relief Efforts as two viable options. There are other locally-based and long-term organizations you may support and several people partnering with the local non-profits. Virgin Islands United, founded by a group of local US Virgin Islanders, have started an organization and movement to provide immediate relief but drive sustainable re-development of our community. Please reach out to me — we need help and we appreciate your support in helping us revive, rebuild and proposer for the local community.
If you are in a position to influence investments, explore creative opportunities for corporations to engage in long-term relief efforts, such as local school sponsorship, public service sabbaticals, and even helping shape a new US Virgin Islands economy through training US Virgin Islanders to provide remote technical services.
Doing Business in the USVI
Consider if it might be in your company’s best interest to do business in America’s paradise — the USVI.
While our rebuilding efforts may take some time, visit our sister island St. Croix filled with a deeper experience of our local culture and vibes that you can only appreciate by being there. Don’t miss out on St. Thomas and St. John for your next adventure. Keep us on your must-visit list because we will come back ready to pamper and please. The US Virgin Islands are the best place to truly experience Caribbean culture and beauty with distinct American comforts.
Help us focus on the true beauty of these islands with your helping hands. The beaches, trees and sand will bounce back over time, but our most valuable resource — the people of the United States Virgin Islands — is the best way to ensure our bright future!
We will rebuild, revive and prosper exponentially if we have your support. It just doesn’t get more beautiful than that.