US Virgin Islands

Free wifi networks to avoid being "forgotten" by the United States

The U.S. Virgin Islands suffered two Category 5 hurricanes within two weeks: Irma battered Saint John and Saint Thomas, while Maria devastated St. Croix. The storms left many of the islands’ residents feeling forgotten by the United States. In Saint John, the community has banded together to help each other out, from free Wi-Fi networks to groups that travel around the island to find out what neighbors need

By Lorena Arroyo, Nacho Corbella & Esther Poveda

A day after Hurricane Irma, Siobhan Mulvey wanted to get her friend off Saint John. The 26-year-old was eight months pregnant and the storm had debilitated the island’s only clinic.

“Our friend is really scared,” Mulvey says. “She spent Irma in her closet, the nursery that she built for her unborn baby was pretty much destroyed.”

Without an airport and with ferries out of service, it wasn’t an easy task. But Mulvey and her friends had taken shelter in one of the few spots on the island that still had an active Wi-Fi connection and a generator. Via Facebook Messenger and Skype, they contacted the owner of a boat in Puerto Rico, who promised to come pick up their friend.

In addition to Mulvey’s friend, that boat ended up evacuating 40 people. “It ended up rolling out into a bigger situation where we were able to evacuate 1,200 people in 12 days,” says Mulvey, who’s now the communications director of a new organization formed out of the tragedy, called Love City Strong.

Since Irma slammed into Saint John as a Category 5 hurricane on September 6, people across the island have had a hard time getting connected. At the end of November, the electrical grid still wasn’t re-established on this side of the island. The only lights in the area are those of cell phones and laptops, illuminating faces. People feel forgotten by the United States, of which Saint John is a territory.

Trying to get back online in Saint John after Irma
In the first days after St. John was battered by Irma, the smallest of the Virgin Islands was practically cut off. Those who survived the hurricane had no way of calling their families. Nacho Corbella / Univision
A local telecommunications company and an NGO began to provide free Wi-Fi points. In the image, Frank searches online for places to buy materials to rebuild his house. Nacho Corbella / Univision
Esther Frett was injured during the hurricane by a broken window, and lost her restaurant. But she says the worst was the anguish of not being able to communicate with her family in Canada. Here, the moment she connected. Nacho Corbella / Univision
People say the ability to communicate is a sign of the return to normality. The Internet and telephone are fundamental for channeling aid, according to Zak Clancy of Help NGO, which works to bring communications to disaster areas. Nacho Corbella / Univision
"When FEMA or a local NGO arrives they should have an internet connection or a signal to make a call and speak with suppliers," Clancy explains. Nacho Corbella / Univision
Months after the hurricane, there are Wi-Fi points in different parts of the island, like here in Cruz Bay, where dozens of people arrive every day to check their email, contact relatives abroad or make purchases online. Nacho Corbella / Univision
A local telecommunications company has also set up free Wi-Fi hotspots, like this one in the Coral Bay building where FEMA is headquartered. Here, Alberto Samuel takes advantage of the connection with his cell phone and his laptop. Nacho Corbella / Univision
According to Daryl Wade, vice president of Virgin Islands Next Generation Network, his company has already put almost 20 free Wi-Fi networks in St. John and St. Thomas, hit by Irma, and St. Croix, which suffered from Maria. Nacho Corbella / Univision
When night falls, screens illuminate the faces of those connected to Wi-Fi. In the photo, Nina Hahler, a woman from Alaska who has been in St. John for 35 years, tries to contact her friends. Nacho Corbella / Univision
Internet points also reduce the feeling of isolation on an island without an airport or hospital and where, after the hurricane, many felt completely forgotten by the United States. Nacho Corbella / Univision
Newly restored electricity also makes people feel a sense of normalcy. By mid-December, almost 60% of homes in the Virgin Islands had electricity. Nacho Corbella / Univision

In response, the community has organized groups to go around the island, house by house, to check on their neighbors.

In those first days after Irma, boats didn’t just evacuate people. They also arrived with help.

Daryl Wade, the vice-president of the local telecommunications company Virgin Islands Next Generation Network, arrived from Saint Thomas. A native of Saint John, he wanted to return home to help. So he sat at the port in Saint Thomas until the first boat left with help, and hopped on. Once on his island, he visited his mother, who had lost her home. Wade says he cried at the sight of the island destroyed, the vegetation ripped out of the earth and sailboats turned over in the sea, as if they were toys.

Immediately, Wade went to look for a friend who works in a telecommunications company and proposed an idea: to establish free Wi-Fi connections so that people could communicate with their families.

“This is 11 at night when we finally get everything working, but there's a curfew. So the next day we just tell people: 'Listen, there's wi-fi now, there's wi-fi now.’" The initiative, which started in Saint John, ended up being replicated in Saint Thomas. The man calculates that there are currently 15 to 20 free Wi-Fi hotspots between the two islands.

On a race to get the lights on in the Virgin Islands

Two Category 5 hurricanes in two weeks

In addition to Wade, Coral Bay Community Council, a local environmental organization, made its satellite phone available to the community so that people could talk to their loved ones off the island.

According to Michelle Bramson, the organization’s administrator, the lines to use the phone were enormous in the first days. “People sat down to wait. They’d get here at 11 and wait hours for a turn. A lot of people were relieved when they get voicemail to leave a message because it was too hard for them to talk without crying, especially those who lost everything.”

The group also played a vital role in alerting Coral Bay residents to Maria, the second Category 5 hurricane to threaten the Virgin Islands in just two weeks. When Maria approached, that side of the island still didn’t have a phone signal.

The organization’s president, Sharon Coldren, wasted no time. She picked up a megaphone and headed out to the street to inform people that they should get ready for another hurricane.

“Everybody had a sinking feeling again: here we go again, at a Category 5 no less,” Bramson recalls.

Maria arrived on September 20. She dumped rain on Saint John and Saint Thomas and battered the third Virgin Island, Saint Croix, as well as Puerto Rico.

Forgotten by the United States?

Despite efforts to re-establish communications, people on Saint John began to feel increasingly isolated; help was taking a long time to arrive and the media were focused on other tragedies. “We felt we had completely fallen off the face of the earth,” says Mulvey, of Love City Strong. “It's only been two weeks and the world forgot about Saint John.”

Some on the Virgin Islands feel like they’re last in line for the United States during a hurricane season that has already proven to be the most expensive in the country’s history; after Harvey hit Texas, Irma swept across parts of Florida, and Maria sowed seeds of chaos in Puerto Rico.

In Coral Bay, in the most remote corner of Saint John, Nina Hahler, 60 is desperate. On a recent night, she stops her lime green Jeep in front of the fire station to seek help. “I need to get in touch with my friends,” she says repeatedly. “They don’t know what happened to me. I was alone in my house during the hurricane and the refrigerator fell on top of me and I can’t walk.”

The station is closed. Nonetheless, dozens of people continue to show up to the building to use the free Wi-Fi.

After Hurricane Irma, Daryl Wade installed free wifi hotspots in Saint John so residents could communicate with their families abroad Nacho Corbella / Univision

Hahler takes out her laptop, but she can’t remember the passwords for her social network accounts. She manages to borrow a phone and tries, unsuccessfully, to call a couple of friends. The signal isn’t good.

“We are the forgotten island,” says Anita Hass, who lives in Chicago but has had a second residence on Saint John for 30 years. “If it weren’t for the workers who have helped fix the electrical system, we wouldn’t have much hope of returning to normal because they’re the ones who will eventually help restore our connection to the rest of the world.”

With a population of 106,000 residents and the largest percentage of Afro-descended people in the United States (76%, according to the 2010 Census), the Virgin Islands are also the only U.S. territory affected by a hurricane this year that President Donald Trump did not visit.

But some say their isolation from the rest of the world has only made the community stronger.

“For me, the hurricane was God talking to us,” says Esther Freet, a former restaurant owner. “Every one of us was poor after Irma. It doesn’t matter whether you had millions in the bank or just a few cents, the bank isn’t open. Wealth should not separate us. The pigmentation of our skin should not separate us.”

She says she hopes Saint John stays unified. “My wish for Christmas is that the community of Saint John stay this way,” she says. “Before the hurricane, people would pass right by you and not even say hello. Now, they stop and they ask how you’re doing.”

Freet’s restaurant was destroyed by Irma. While she waits for materials to rebuild her business, she works as a volunteer with Love City Strong.

After Hurricane Maria, Love City Strong changed its strategy. From receiving boatloads of help from Puerto Rico and Saint Croix and returning them full of evacuees, it began to take a more active role in the community.

Since then, dozens of Love City Strong volunteers, as well as volunteers of another local organization, Saint John Rescue, travel the island, house by house. They encounter neighbors with a variety of needs, from medical and psychological assistance, to a generator, to fixes for mold.

All the information they collect is forwarded to federal agencies to ensure the community receives the help they need.

“We’re going to rebuild better than before,” Mulvey says. “We should ensure that the infrastructure and the electrical system are rebuilt better so that the next hurricane won’t affect us so much. I believe that Saint John will return stronger than ever.”

A special report by Lorena Arroyo, Nacho Corbella & Esther Poveda
All Credits

Project: Univision Noticias

Texts: Lorena Arroyo, Elaine Díaz Rodríguez (Cuba)

Video: Nacho Corbella, Esther Poveda, Almudena Toral, Andrea Patiño, Laura Prieto, José Luis Osuna, Mauricio Rodríguez-Pons, Ricardo Weibezahn

Design and dev: Juanje Gómez

Project coordination: Nathalie Alvaray, Selymar Colón, José López

Photo: Nacho Corbella, Esther Poveda, Lorena Arroyo

Text editing: María Sánchez Díez

Data: Ronny Rojas, Dilia Márquez, Antonio Cucho

Social networks: María Carolina Hurtado, Esther Poveda, Nacho Corbella, Ricardo Weibezahn

Digital product: Daniela Jaramillo

Translation: Julie Schwietert Collazo, Melvin Félix

English texts editing: David Adams, Jessica Weiss, Mónica Isola

Additional thanks: Maye Primera, Inger Díaz, Alejandra Vargas, Patricia Clarembaux, Patricia Vélez, Carmen Graciela Díaz, Luis Velarde, David Maris,Angélica Gallón