Courtesy Jeff Neezel(NEW YORK) — The island of St. Thomas was among the group of islands worst hit by Hurricane Irma and now residents are faced with recovering from the devastation, or in some cases, deciding that it might not in their best interest to rebuild.
Some, like Pastor Jeff Neezel and members of his congregation, are working to salvage the many ravaged homes and try to rebuild.
Others, like Kacie Marano, decided that it was safest to leave the island after the storm hit and are now weighing whether to return home.
All agree that the devastation that Hurricane Irma left in its wake was worse than they could have imagined.
“There’s not a leaf left on a tree,” Neezel told ABC News. “It looks like a deserted planet.”
Marano has had a long relationship with the U.S. Virgin Islands, but now she is grappling with the question of whether to ever return. She went to high school in neighboring St. Croix and has lived on St. Thomas for the last three years working for a contracting firm affiliated with USAID on agriculture projects for the U.S. government.
On Tuesday before the storm hit, she said she and her colleagues “cleaned out our desks and put garbage bags on everything. We knew it was going to be bad.”
From there, she went to her apartment, which is the top, wooden floor of a building.
“I’m a single female living in a house that is not my own and I’m lucky that I know what a Phillips screwdriver is,” she said about her efforts to board up her house.
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She packed up a waterproof backpack with important documents, three days-worth of workout clothes, underwear and three meaningful photos of her deceased father and grandmother.
She then left to stay with friends who have a secure lower alcove in their house, which they thought would be a safe place to ride out the storm.
When she called her neighbor after the storm hit a day later, she said that he told her half of her roof had blown away.
“Only half of it came off. It was over my bedroom, so I’m assuming that pretty much everything is gone,” she said. “But I don’t know that for sure.”
“I think my washer and dryer is in their shower,” she said.
Julius Jackson, the 30-year-old head chef and manager of a cafe-turned-soup kitchen, called My Brother’s Workshop, was shocked by the devastation.
“We could see the coconut tree right outside the window and it was almost touching the ground,” he said about watching the storm.
“There were houses that weren’t even standing anymore,” Jackson continued. “You could see just the debris and the stairs.”
Downed trees have made a number of roads on the island impassable. Marano said the car at her friend’s house was hit by a fallen tree, making it impossible for her to return home. She said she bounced between friends’ houses for a few days, but then “there were rumors about safety issues and at that point I had to get out as soon as possible.”
She got in touch with a friend who was bringing supplies from Puerto Rico and rode back with him. Eventually, she took a JetBlue flight to New York. She is now staying with her mother in New Jersey and doesn’t know what she’s going to do.
“There’s not much to go back for in the immediate future,” she said.
For those still on the island, daily life is gradually improving. Neezel spoke to ABC News on Monday and said that My Brother’s Workshop, which he was helping to organize, didn’t know if they would have enough fuel to power the generators for more than one day. By Tuesday morning, the power was back on at the cafe.
“It was a huge, huge victory,” he told ABC News on Tuesday.
They started running power lines out to the street so people could charge their phones. The cafe, which is able to feed about 500 people per day, plans to cook and serve a full lunch on Tuesday.
Still, the situation is far from perfect.
Security on the island has been an issue and Neezel said the cafe has experienced repeated break-ins, including as recently as last night, where they store food.
“There’s not much stuff left there [so] they couldnt have gotten much,” Neezel said about the would-be robbers.
At his house, he was fortunate. The roof stayed in place and the structure only suffered minor water damage. But that isn’t the case for many.
“I have 15 families [in the congregation] that have lost their homes,” Neezel said, “and the entire population of the island is half homeless now because of roofs blown off.”
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