For about 10 months before Hurricane Dorian brushed the Virgin Islands last week, Wendy Hendricks would wake up each morning in the tattered tent in which she was living near Foxy’s Tamarind Bar on Jost Van Dyke.
Instead of a shower and toilet, she had buckets behind the tent, and gallons of drinking water that she carried from the local store. She cooked with non-perishable goods on a portable stove.
The tent’s flaps were so tattered that rain came inside, and it had recently become infested with mongooses and mice.
When the VI was battered by heavy rains and winds from Dorian, she lost even this humble home: The posts were ripped out of the ground, smashing the tent and leaving her homeless. She moved in with a friend in Cane Garden Bay.
Ms. Hendricks is one of many residents across the territory who are still struggling two years after Irma.
“There are some who still have not been able to get back into their homes,” said Laurel Freeman, head of Family, Children and Protective Services at the Social Development Department. “Some of them lost their jobs. Some of them felt embarrassed that they had to come and ask for assistance. … There’s still some persons who still have not have had their homes rebuilt.”
Help has not always been forthcoming. As of late July, 289 eligible applicants for the government’s Housing Recovery Assistance Programme had not received aid, according to the most recent figures provided by Health and Social Development Minister Carvin Malone, who added that the programme was some $17 million short on needed funding.
At least 150 more people applied for aid, but the HSD Ministry determined they did not meet the criteria to receive assistance, Mr. Malone said.
As the second anniversary of Irma approached, Ms. Hendricks was one of two people living in tents on Jost Van Dyke, JVD District Officer Carmen Blyden said in July.
Three other residents were living in domes without electricity or water, with many more living in temporary wooden structures.
The main problem, Ms. Blyden explained, was that residents like Ms. Hendricks don’t own land, and the Recovery and Development Agency can’t build any housing structures without the permission of the landowner.
Many landowners, she added, are elderly or sick and have not returned to the VI since the storm.
“That’s why there are challenges, because if I’m renting a property and my landlord has not been back, he’s leaving me out and vulnerable — not knowing where to go, what to do,” she said. “That is the situation.”
Ms. Hendricks, who hails from Massachusetts, has lived on and off in the VI for 26 years.
After Irma, she said, she and her husband Sidney Hendricks Jr. lived in the banquet hall of Sidney’s Peace and Love Restaurant for three months but had to move out due to a family dispute over the business.
After that, they received a tent from ShelterBox, an English charity that was working in partnership with Rotary.
Eventually however, that tent started to grow mould and they were forced to move out.
Her husband, who suffers a traumatic brain injury from a 1986 motorcycle accident, now lives in a dome shelter, but she is unable to stay there with him because of a contagious infection on his leg, Ms. Hendricks explained.
Before Dorian, she had been living for about 10 months in a new tent that she said National Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley (R-D9) acquired from a Rotary warehouse in Virgin Gorda.
She had set it up on a wooden platform to prevent flooding and mould.
Mr. Hendricks said she has made repeated requests for assistance to the HSD Ministry and the Governor’s Office, to no effect.
“The government ought to be put to shame,” she said.
In a July 31 House of Assembly sitting, Mr. Malone, the HSD minister, acknowledged that the housing situation on the island was a “hindrance.”
“This situation points to a growing need to supply affordable and dignified public housing in the territory to alleviate chronic homelessness,” the minister said in response to questions from opposition member Mitch Turnbull (R-D2), who represents JVD. “Unfortunately, the resources currently available under the Housing Recovery Assistance Programme are insufficient at this time to meet this demand.”
He added that he could not predict a date by which every displaced person would be provided with permanent housing.
“Every effort has been made to prioritise and expedite the disbursement of available funds for home repairs and reconstruction based on needs through a combination of technical and social assessment,” he said.
He added that government had received more than 600 applications for housing assistance, 444 of which met the eligibility requirements, but said that only 155 had been approved by that time.
Other residents who haven’t yet recovered their homes remain in shelters, like the three families who have been living at the Long Trench Community Centre.
Peter Williams, his daughter and three grandchildren have been living in the same room at the shelter for a year and a half after Irma destroyed their home and nearly all of their possessions.
Their landlord, he said, is not rebuilding their home.
At the shelter, the five of them share three beds, with the two girls sharing a bed with their mother.
Mr. Williams believes that landlords take advantage of the high demand for housing by raising their pricing, leaving families like his own with a dearth of affordable options.
His grandson, who asked not to be named, said he is putting off going to college so he can work to try to afford a new place.
Sharing a space with his grandfather, mother and two sisters, he misses his privacy and simple things like playing music on his speakers or coming home and turning on the television.
“We don’t have an actual house; it’s not our house,” he said. “We can’t just come and furnish government property.”
He added that he would like to see government take more action by implementing price controls or providing affordable public housing.
Mr. Williams said he would like to live on his own as well, and has applied for a home through the Housing Recovery Assistance Programme, but he doesn’t know yet if he will receive one.
“As soon as I get somewhere else, I’m gone,” he said.
‘State of devastation’
Even residents whose homes remained at least partially intact after the storm have not fully recovered.
“I’m still in a state of devastation. I haven’t gotten myself back together,” said Rowan Malone, who lives at the bottom of Joes Hill in Tortola. “I haven’t gotten myself organised.”
Hurricane Irma destroyed his roof and one of his walls, and while most major repairs have been done to his home and his electricity has been restored, he still doesn’t have a refrigerator or a functioning shower.
Instead, he bathes himself using water right out of his cistern.
Before Irma, Mr. Malone, who is diabetic, worked as a maintenance worker for the Recreation Trust.
In the midst of post-storm clean-up, he stepped on a nail. The wound became infected, and eventually gangrene spread to his leg, which a doctor in St. Thomas amputated below the knee.
And in the event of another major storm, he worries that his plywood home will blow away and he would be unable to run to safety.
“I don’t really want to live here,” he said.
He is trying to build a shelter in a concrete structure next to his house, but he was not approved for a $10,000 loan he applied for to do repairs, and his injury forced him to quit his job.
A contractor helped rebuild his house for free, and he received donated furniture from a local church in the immediate aftermath of the storms, but he said he hasn’t received any aid from the government.
“If anything comes through here, I’m gonna be destroyed again because I haven’t gotten fixed up in the proper way,” he said.
Elaine Ortiz still has a leaky ceiling and damaged floors from the storms in her Purcell Estate home. She remembers one government official who spoke Spanish — her native language — visiting to collect information, but believes the government has provided very little assistance to immigrants like herself.
But the biggest impact Irma has had on her life, she said, is the high cost of living and lack of employment, problems which she said are exacerbated for immigrants who can’t own homes or get high-paying public service jobs.
“All these problems that are happening affect the majority of immigrants,” she said.
She added that some who have been displaced are still living with up to six people in one dwelling.
Ms. Ortiz used to work for Dolphin Discovery, which has not reopened since the storms. Recently, she has only been able to find part-time work as a cashier at a supermarket, and struggles to afford rent, water, electricity and food for her three children.
The Santo Domingo native, who has lived in Tortola for 15 years, said Dominicans in particular are paid less because of discrimination.
“You work and work and work and they don’t pay,” she said.
For many, the hurricane damage provides constant reminders of the most traumatic day of their lives.
Samantha Khan remembers on Sept. 6, 2017, she was tracking the news and preparing breakfast for her husband and two daughters when the winds started blowing.
When she felt the walls shaking, she started to wonder if the second-floor apartment where her family lived in her husband’s uncle’s Fahie Hill property was strong enough to withstand the storm.
Once she heard the sound of the glass doors breaking, she grabbed her 1-month-old and 4-year-old and rushed to the bathroom.
When the storm started ripping up the bathroom, she headed into the closet, and when that went and furniture started flying, she grabbed her children, milk and dry clothes and pried the door open to get downstairs to seek shelter in the small storage room that held the apartment’s gas tank.
She teared up as she recalled hearing her daughters screaming, wondering if she would live or die.
“I have to live because of my girls,” she remembered thinking. “I have to live.”
Their second-floor apartment was levelled, so her husband’s uncle moved out and gave them his first-floor apartment.
But every day Ms. Khan misses her old apartment and is reminded of the “worst day of my life” by the couch, dishes and broken shelves that still lie in shambles with the roof and other furnishing strewn about upstairs.
“It’s like it just happened a couple of days ago,” she said.
On Virgin Gorda, many residents are still having trouble getting back on their feet as well.
“I didn’t really believe what I’ve seen and then reality begins to kick in,” Raymond Caton recalled of the storm. “[My house] was damaged. Crushed. Finished.”
He submitted an application to the Housing Recovery Assistance Programme, he said, but he was not approved.
And since the storm, he is still unemployed, which makes it difficult to pay for repairs. He has been living elsewhere, but declined to go into details.
“Certain things you don’t really say,” he said.
Such reticence is common, with many residents reluctant to discuss their personal struggles, according to Ms. Freeman, the SDD social worker.
Mr. Caton didn’t have any insurance at the time of Irma: He used to have a policy, he said, but hadn’t renewed it for a year because there hadn’t been any hurricanes for a long time.
Insured and struggling
But some who had insurance, like VG resident Roberta Stevens, didn’t receive enough compensation to complete the necessary repairs. Ms. Stevens, who is retired, wasn’t able to move back into her home until April after living with various friends and family.
While it now has electricity and running water, she is still without a stove, a refrigerator or other furniture.
She sleeps on an air mattress on the floor.
Ms. Stavens tries to put away a little money from her social security cheque every month to save up, but it’s not enough.
She said she applied for government assistance, but didn’t receive any. She also hasn’t received any assistance from non-profit organisations or charities, she added.
“Nothing [from] the government,” she said. “No representative, nobody came to me and asked me how I’m getting on.”
Ms. Stevens added that she finds the lack of concern from government disheartening.
“I know they say the government don’t have money, but I am not pressing them for money,” she said. “But at least they could have come and find out how I am living.”
Nicklous Kanhai contributed to this report.