Relay: The Report From St. Thomas

St. Thomas is in shambles
The rescue hoses of Golden Age Ranch take St. Thomas tourists on trail rides down to the beach and into the Caribbean water. Without that income to support them, the Golden Age Ranch needs help. Taylor K. Vecsey

We all have those special places. Places we go for respite or rejuvenation, where we relax and unwind. Places where we seek refuge from a storm. St. Thomas is that for me, but last week a storm found the island and wreaked havoc. 

Hurricane Irma unleashed its wrath on several islands in the Caribbean. While it did not level St. Thomas as badly as St. Martin/St. Maarten, Barbuda, or perhaps even St. John, it is in shambles.

The American news media was slow to report how widespread the damage was in the U.S. Virgin Islands, perhaps forgetting it is a U.S. territory whose residents pay taxes and deserve federal aid. The Weather Channel played the same clip on rotation of palm trees bending in 185-mile-per-hour winds. 

On social media, I was able to find some real-time information by searching by location to see strangers riding out the storm in some of my favorite spots. But with the strong winds and loss of power so went the cellphone service and the updates. Local news sites were down. 

I found a group on Facebook called “What’s Going on St. Thomas?” where news slowly started to seep in. Lives were lost, the airport was flooded, the hospital roof flew off, buildings were destroyed, and roads were impassable. 

Lyn Shoemaker, who owns land where the Golden Age Ranch was founded in 2011 as a horse sanctuary, was out of town in Massachusetts when she posted ahead of the storm that Jerry, who runs the ranch, had made a trial run, putting all 27 horses in the barn — three in each stall and three on cross ties in the aisle. 

The last she heard from him during the storm was at 11 a.m. and the horses — and Jerry — were riding it out in the barn. “Close quarters but all behaving,” she wrote. “Jerry sounded confident and upbeat. Need to calm frightened horses.” 

By Friday afternoon she got miraculous news. Jerry, the horses, and even the barn, which he had built himself, and the shelter in the paddock had made it. A friend had even sent a photo to prove what otherwise might not have been believable. 

The destruction and cleanup are all horrible, of course, but it is the long-term impacts that make me frightened for all the good people of St. Thomas. They survive on tourism.

The horses, too, depend on the tourist economy. Once abandoned or unwanted, many from the local racetrack, the folks at the Golden Age Ranch support them financially by leading trail rides down to the nearby Lindquist Beach. Tourists, mainly, pay good money to take the ride down the rocky terrain to a wooded trail to the sandy white beach. 

The horses, with names like Captain Morgan and Bushwacker (a signature drink on the island that we know here as B.B.C.s), go right into the turquoise blue water. I’ve ridden in some pretty fancy riding facilities in my day, but nothing compares to riding with your feet in the water under the Caribbean sun. Knowing my mount, Budweiser, was saved from the glue factory and being treated kindly and supported by the trail ride fee makes it that much sweeter a ride.

Now the trails are impassable. Lindquist Beach — where my husband and I were married two years ago — is bare, from what I hear. Not to mention, the tourists won’t be coming if the rest of the island’s infrastructure cannot support the tourism. 

The news caught up early this week once major organizations like CNN were able to get to the island. The National Guard arrived on St. John. President Trump will visit the U.S. Virgin Islands later this week.

Tim Duncan, the retired N.B.A. champion, quickly donated $250,000 and pledged to match $1 million raised to help the islands. A native of St. Croix, which was devastated by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, he knows firsthand how long it can take for an island to recover. Then a swimmer, when the Olympic-size pool was destroyed on St. Croix he turned to basketball. Talk about turning lemons into lemonade.

There is so much to be done in the weeks, months, perhaps even years ahead to fix what recent hurricanes have undone. Let’s not forget about the islands we run off to to get away from harsh winters and our everyday lives. Let’s not forget about our favorite places or our friends — two or four-legged.

Taylor K. Vecsey is The Star’s digital media editor.