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Virgin Islands assess damage

BY GEORGE PIPER | ST. CROIX, U.S. Virgin Islands | September 28, 1998

ST. CROIX, U.S. Virgin Islands (Sept. 28, 1998) -- A week after

Hurricane Georges swept past the U.S. Virgin Islands, there is one sign

that everything will be okay: tourism has returned.

The storm, which caused more than 320 deaths elsewhere as it hit island

after island through the Caribbean before hitting the U.S. mainland, caused

relatively minor structural damage and no deaths. Georges's impact -- or

lack thereof -- left local officials and disaster relief administrators


"I think the real concern is how we can be of service to the other

islands who have been hurt by the disaster," said the Rev. Lester White of

Lord God of Sabaoth Church, an Evangelical Lutheran Church of America

(ELCA) congregation in Christiansted, St. Croix. "We know that what affect

them also affects us."

White's comments echoed concerns of those residing in or providing

relief to the trio of islands that make up the U.S. territory, which is

home to some 100,000 people.

Gil Furst, the director of Lutheran Disaster Response, reported "life at

a normal pace" on Saturday in the Virgin Islands. He added that roofs

constructed by Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) volunteers after Hurricane

Marilyn were intact.

After hurricanes Hugo and Marilyn struck the island chain in 1989 and

1995, most structures were rebuilt to Federal Emergency Management Agency

(FEMA) code, said Wycherley Gumbs, a Church World Service (CWS) disaster

resource consultant for the Virgin Islands and representative of Interfaith

Disaster Response of St. Thomas, noting the lack of physical damage. He

added, though, that Georges did not test the islands as a Category 3 or 4


Because telephone communication was sparse after the storm, Gumbs said

the mainland media gave the impression the Virgin Islands fared far worse

than it did. As of Monday, electricity and telephone service had been

restored to much of the area.

Catholic Charities USA is concentrating its efforts on Puerto Rico after

its contacts in the Virgin Islands reported things getting back to normal.

"They said it was nothing like they went through three years ago (with

Hurricane Marilyn)," said Jane Gallagher, director of the organization's

disaster response office.

One problem with sending cash assistance to its officials in Puerto

Rico, Gallagher said, is mail service is not operating and banks have been

closed. The group will continue to assess needs throughout the week. Lack

of telephone service and, in some cases, language barriers sometimes slows

the relief process in the Caribbean.

"It's always a challenge trying to deal with the islands, even with the

best of circumstances," she said.

CWS sent Art Jackson, a Massachusetts-based Disaster Response Consultant

with Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), to assess

mitigation and preparedness in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The United Methodist Volunteers in Mission is enlisting volunteers to

head to the Caribbean as part of the long-term recovery. Sherri Mangueira,

a volunteer coordinator with UMVIM based in Naples, Fla., finally made

contact today with officials in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic as

the organization prepares its response.

One area impacted hard by Georges has been the Virgin Islands'

agricultural industry. Coconuts and mango are among the crops damaged on

St. Croix, and the storm also killed livestock. Arthur Peterson, the Virgin

Islands agriculture commission, has offered local and federal aid to


Despite the fair weather assessment for the Virgin Islands, White noted

that people still will need help rebuilding homes. Local churches can be a

clearinghouse to give people access to and information about disaster


"There are people here who will need attention to their homes that might

get lost in the cracks because they're not as bad off as in the previous

storms," he said.

Equally important are people's emotional needs. White recalls a few

post-Marilyn deaths that were attributed to the stress of coping after the


"People need to be heard and listened to," he said. "That lays the

foundation for other (relief) that is coming."

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