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A Lesson in Resilience from the U.S. Virgin Islands: Be Prepared

Readiness is a key to hurricane survival

A map showing the three islands of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Image from iStock

Located to the east of Puerto Rico and west of the British Virgin Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands consists of three main islands and several smaller ones.


September 2017 marked the first time in recorded history that two Category 5 hurricanes struck the same area within two weeks. Hurricane Irma made landfall on the British Virgin Islands and the northern U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. John. Forty miles to the south, St. Croix experienced sustained tropical-storm winds with hurricane-force gusts.

Twelve days later, the tables were turned. Hurricane Maria landed on Puerto Rico and St. Croix. The northern U.S. and British islands, already devastated by Irma, experienced tropical-storm winds with hurricane gusts.

The hurricanes severely damaged hundreds of homes in the U.S. Virgin Islands. All of the hospitals sustained significant damage, necessitating the air evacuation of patients to the U.S. mainland. Cell service in the Virgin Islands was limited. Streets were full of debris and utility wires. Large trees fell and those that remained standing no longer had leaves.


"The U.S. Virgin Islands had experienced devastating hurricanes before, including five major ones since Hugo in 1989. Each storm taught us lessons about hurricane-proof construction and hurricane preparedness."

Diane Capehart of AARP U.S. Virgin Islands working at a hurricane relief center.

Photo by AARP U.S. Virgin Islands

The Virgin Islands knows how to weather storms, but the one-two punch of the 2017 season was a first. AARP Virgin Islands staff (that's Diane Capehart, pictured) distributed relief supplies in Christiansted, on the island of St. Croix, and elsewhere.


The Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA) — the local equivalent of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — and the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR) are repositories of lessons learned.

When Hurricane Hugo struck the Virgin Islands three decades ago, it caused complete devastation to roughly 90 percent of the homes and buildings on St. Croix and hundreds on St. Thomas and St. John. Subsequently, DPNR revised the building codes, and utilities were made more resilient, thereby minimizing the damage caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria. VITEMA, under the direction of Mona Barnes, interfaced with FEMA, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Armed Forces, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Virgin Islands National Guard. VITEMA also coordinated rescue and recovery efforts. The response was amazing, but preparedness work continues.

The local government and utility companies continue to improve our storm readiness. AARP is participating in the development of Complete Streets policies that include provisions to decrease flooding by improving drainage and prevent downed power lines by the managed trimming of the islands’ large, protected mahogany trees.

While it did take five months for electricity to be fully restored, and telecommunication services were still limited six months after the storms, every person in the U.S. Virgin Islands had access to food, water, fuel and medical care in abundance from Day 1.

Although the U.S. Virgin Islands was well prepared, the storms of September 2017 have taught us how to be even more resilient.