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After two devastating hurricanes, U.S. Virgin Islands’ ‘hurt is very real’

Hurricane-battered infrastructure and limited electricity have taken a toll on the tourism-driven economy of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Home to 100,000 Americans, the islands took a hit from both hurricanes Irma and Maria at their peaks within a span of two weeks. William Brangham speaks with U.S. Virgin Islands state senator Janette Millin Young about how the islands are faring and the progress made.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But first: what life is like in the U.S. Virgin Islands one month after Hurricane Maria struck.

    William Brangham has an update.

  • William Brangham:

    Given what happened when recent hurricanes hit Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, it's easy to lose sight of the U.S. Virgin Islands; 100,000 American citizens live there.

    They were hit by two Category 5 storms in the span of two weeks. Progress is being made, but there's a long way to go.

    On Saint John, for example, power is largely still out for everyone. Electricity is quite limited on Saint Thomas and Saint Croix as well. Many structures, including two hospitals, schools and police stations, were destroyed.

    For a look at the latest, we talked by phone earlier today with a state senator on the island, Janette Millin Young.

    Senator, thank you very much for being here.

    I wonder if you could just start off by just giving us a sense of what daily life is like there now.

  • Janette Millin Young, U.S. Virgin Islands Senator:

    Daily life continues to be a struggle for many people here in the United States Virgin Islands.

    If you would be here, the optics would tell you a little different, because we have started to — it seems like it's normal because we're in traffic. The plants and the trees, everything is turning green again, but the lives of most people is still a struggle.

    And for that reason, so many have left. You just noted how many schools have been closed. And the Department of Education has condemned a few. That means that parents have to find a way to take their children to school, especially our seniors that have to meet certain requirements.

    So we have lost a lot of people. I don't have a sense of how many people. And that is a question that I will definitely be asking on the floor when we have committee hearings, because we're not getting information, especially as senators.

    So if the senators are not being informed, imagine what the average person is not being informed as well. And so that presents another problem, because while you have your own despair, because you don't have your roof, you don't have current, you don't have many basic necessities, the lack of information then becomes another part of the struggle.

  • William Brangham:

    I just want to remind people, so you guys had to deal with Irma, which tore some roofs off and stripped the trees bare.

  • Janette Millin Young:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    And then you have another storm coming in right as you're trying to clean up from the first.

  • Janette Millin Young:

    Yes.

    And, you know, I will tell you, from my personal perspective, because I worked for the gubernatorial administration back in '95, when we had Hurricane Marilyn. And so, when that hurricane hit, I think it was maybe a Category 3, but it's still devastating.

    We did so much to clean up this place. The airport was open in three days. We cleaned up the main streets to make sure that commerce was going. And now we are not. And so I understand we had two Category 5's, but we didn't do enough after the first, so much less after the second.

    And so that has really crippled us. The economy is tanking. And we need to get commerce going. Many of the stores are still cash-only. We have a lot of people unemployed because you had all these hotels close. So that means it displaced about 1,000 people. Well, that represents families, doesn't it?

    So the economy has taken a real blow, and we really need to get this going.

  • William Brangham:

    Can you tell us a little bit about what is the situation with regards to electricity?

  • Janette Millin Young:

    The electricity, as you yourself mentioned — I was on Saint John yesterday. They still are really struggling there.

    There's no power. And whoever is open is open with generators. So, the generator companies are actually doing really good, because we're not moving fast enough.

    I will say, in defense of the work that is being done, we do have about 500 line men. We have line men coming from all over the country, and we're really appreciative of that. It should have happened sooner. And I won't say that I'm not grateful, because I am super, super grateful, because so many in the United States have come down either through FEMA, law enforcement, line men.

    But we need to operate as if it is a small place, because it is a small place. We should have been further along, despite the fact that it was Category 5 hurricanes that hit us.

  • William Brangham:

    So, who do you put that responsibility on? I know FEMA is the one that's in charge of the response. Do you feel like they haven't been doing enough? Or where do you apportion blame in this?

  • Janette Millin Young:

    Well, I have to say that it comes from the top.

    The senators are not at the table when it comes to emergency management. We're policy-makers, and we approve funding, but we are not at the table for emergency response. And when you ask certain federal officials, they will tell you, well, the state didn't make this request.

    I know that I have asked for many things to happen, but I don't see them. And sometimes we can get caught up politically, when we shouldn't, because we have lives at stake.

  • William Brangham:

    I understand you were in Washington, D.C., recently speaking to some senior leadership here in the Senate and the House. Did you get a sense that they were hearing you?

  • Janette Millin Young:

    I got a very good sense that they were listening to what our plight was, despite the fact that the media, the national media, has not been paying a whole lot of attention to us.

    You hear marathons and you hear relief efforts for Puerto Rico. I'm half Puerto Rican myself, so I'm happy that people are responding to Puerto Rico. But I am a public servant for the United States Virgin Islands, so it hurts every single time I hear what is happening in Puerto Rico, and no one mentions what's happening in the United States Virgin Islands.

    Once again, I thank you for the attention being placed here, because our hurt is very real.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Senator Janette Millin Young from the U.S. Virgin Islands, thank you very much for talking with us.

  • Janette Millin Young:

    Thank you. Thank you so much.

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