Two Category 5 hurricanes, Irma and Maria, ravaged the Caribbean within two weeks of each other last September. Afterward, the world's attention fell largely on the U.S. island territory of Puerto Rico. But just as badly hit was the American territory next door: the U.S. Virgin Islands, including St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix.
The U.S. Virgin Islands' economy and its 103,000 residents depend on tourism. But some top resorts won't reopen until next year. Beverly Nicholson-Doty is the U.S. Virgin Islands' tourism commissioner. During her recent visit to Miami, she spoke with WLRN's Tim Padgett about the efforts to rebuild - and welcome back visitors.
WLRN: U.S. Virgin Islanders say they actually experienced a Category 10 hurricane: two Category 5's back to back. How would you describe the massive blow Irma and Maria dealt the islands?
NICHOLSON-DOTY: Certainly the devastation was real. We had not experienced anything even remotely similar to this. You know, I've been through several hurricanes. I anticipated poles down and trees down. But going into a housing community where three walls out of four had been blown out and people were clinging to their belongings will always resonate with me.
Tourism brings in about $1.5 billion or almost a third of the U.S. Virgin Islands' GDP. How badly hit was that critical economic engine?
We're anticipating that our numbers will be down somewhere about 60 percent this year. The cruise passengers are almost back to pre-storm numbers, but in traditional hotels we have more than 50 percent of our accommodations units that still remain out of inventory. So your overnight guest contributes three times the magnitude of a cruise visitor, and we don't anticipate being fully back to pre-storm accommodation numbers until the end of 2018, well into 2019.
However, people are coming back. They may not be in traditional hotels, but one of the things that we've been seeing is that villas, yachting, Airbnb - those types of accommodations have really expanded. Many of the hotels are housing relief workers. So as we see relief workers start to taper off, we anticipate we will be somewhere around 70 to 80 percent return by the end of the year.
A new tourism slogan for the U.S. Virgin Islands is: "Still Nice." What is that supposed to convey?
A few years ago, U.S. Virgin Islander entertainer Pressure Busspipe released a song which is, "Virgin Islands Nice." After the storms, people were questioning, you know, What's the status of the U.S. Virgin Islands? And our team, our marketing team, looked around and we said, "We're still nice."
What do the U.S. Virgin Islands plan to do to make the territory more resilient in the face of these stronger storms?
We have to look at how do we harden our infrastructure -- you know, move utilities underground, strengthening the building codes to sustain the higher winds.
What about sea level rise?
Absolutely. Beach erosion is a concern for us. We're having dialogues with the [U.S.] Army Corps of Engineers to ensure that we lessen that impact.
Do Virgin Islanders, who are also U.S. citizens, feel as neglected by the U.S. Congress and the Trump administration as Puerto Ricans do?
I think that in any disaster there are things that can be done better. Our governor and our delegate to Congress have worked extremely hard in making sure that the Virgin Islands have the resources they need.
The big month- long carnival celebration starts on March 31. Will it be a subdued party this year?
We are going to have an incredible Carnival. We're going to revel in the fact that we came out of two Category 5's. And we can laugh together because we certainly have had that period of crying together.