On September 6, 2017, maximum-strength Category 5 Hurricane Irma slammed into the Caribbean islands of St. John and St. Thomas. Less than a month later, Hurricane Maria barreled through the region with equal intensity.
When the rain and wind died down, the three major territories that make up the U.S. Virgin Islands were devastated, leaving a predominantly Black population in despair.
In the days following the monstrous storms, a cohort of Black women emerged with one mission — prioritize the people largely ignored by mainstream media and restore the American territory to its former glory.
Mona Barnes, Deanna James, Diane Parrott, Darice Plaskett, Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett and Anita Roberts rolled up their sleeves and got to work. From moving hospital patients to safety to being a voice for islanders, these dynamic women exemplified the very spirit of #BlackGirlMagic.
Take a look at their story.
Intent on keeping the citizens of the USVI on the hearts and minds of mainland Americans, Plaskett took the emotional stories of her constituents to Congress, mainstream media and anybody willing and able to lend a helping hand. What she amplified was a story of courage and resiliency coupled with the imperative need for the government's immediate help. “Virgin islanders, as I'm sure you're aware, are really proud people and we're not going to be up here begging for support or crying about what’s happened, Plaskett told ESSENCE. “When you see the people and ask them how they are, they tell you that they're good, thank God for life, but when you press them, they tell you that they don't have a home anymore. That they are living with relatives, that their employer — a hotel, is no longer in existence and won't be put back up for another two years.” In addition to being an undeterred voice for the region, Plaskett joined on the ground efforts to do the hard work. During her visits to various distribution centers and hard-hit areas, she recognized the urgent need for such things as clean water, an adequate emergency room, and the dissemination of government aid to elderly islanders. She fought for these issues to be resolved and demanded that the roughly 100,000 islanders affected by Irma and Maria become a top priority for the federal government.
As the Director of the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA), Mona Barnes is at the forefront of the recovery efforts going on in the USVI. Her office’s main responsibility is to coordinate and collaborate with all agencies, federal or otherwise, and respond with aid and support. “We ended up actually having to make some coordination through ham radio to be able to communicate with the island of St. John and that was days after the second storm— which was Maria— had passed,” Barnes explained. In tandem with providing logistics on monetary aid and the distribution of commodities and resources, Barnes also had to tackle the growing frustration of islanders who believed the recovery efforts weren’t moving quickly enough. “The Virgin Islands is part of the United States. We're a territory, and we're citizens of the U.S. And the same resources that are given to other states and territories, we look for that,” Barnes revealed. “Having to sometimes wait in lines, the inability to communicate because of the phone lines being down and a lot of things were getting to people.”
Twenty-eight years ago when Hurricane Hugo ravaged the United States Virgin Islands, the St. Croix Foundation was founded to help pick up the pieces. “This place that we find ourselves in now in the aftermath of Hurricanes Maria and Irma is familiar space for us,” Executive Director Deanna James told ESSENCE. “We launched a hurricane relief and recovery fund immediately following both storms with a real commitment to holistic community redevelopment, ensuring real equity in terms of the ways in which both governmental and philanthropic were supporting our community.” Although St. Croix was mostly spared the wrath of Hurricane Irma, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands took a direct hit from Maria, leaving the place that served as the operational hub of the region, just another victim of a powerful hurricane season. As the foundation works hard to attend to the needs of the families it serves, James is careful to point out that the events taking place in the Caribbean are apart of our collective story of resilience. “Our story here is part of the diaspora. Our story is of black and brown American citizens and [it’s] directly connected to the story of African-Americans on the mainland.”
Even before Virgin Islanders could fully process what happened during Irma, Diane Parrott, the President of the Virgin Islands Association in Washington D.C., sprang into action, gathering her members to pull off what would be one of three major drives to collect supplies for the victims of the storms. “When the hurricane first hit, there was nothing,” Parrott recalled. “People were looking for sanitary items and stuff for the elderly, and babies, and toiletries. So we had several drives where we had people come out in the D.C. area to bring relief donations. We did that the first weekend, September 9th and 10th. Then, we also had another drive on September 16th, and another one on September 30th. So we collected over 20,000 pounds of relief goods.” Parrott spearheaded the projects with the help of her network both in the United States and the Caribbean, enlisting her Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority sisters in the Virgin Islands to disseminate the supplies collected on the mainland to those who needed it in St. Thomas. “I called the Chapter President down there, Donna Frett. And I'm like, ‘I have a container of stuff coming in. Round up the Sorors!’ And they packaged everything, and got in their cars and trucks, and made deliveries to the nursing home, to the elderly,” Parrott told ESSENCE.
While Hurricane Irma rapidly approached the island of St. Thomas, Darice Plaskett prepared for the emergency crisis expected to come with it. As the Chief Nursing Officer at the island’s Schneider Regional Medical Center, Plaskett provides oversight and administration for the patient care services and nursing staff. During the storms, her job description quickly expanded to include evacuating patients and moving sick people from flooding areas to safe zones devoid of water intrusion. The hospital now stands as a skeleton of its former self. “We had to suspend certain services. For example — the cancer center. That facility got really damaged, so we're not providing any radiology or medical oncology services. We do some IV therapy and blood transfusion for those patients, but most of those patients are still off island or being treated in private providers offices,” Plaskett told ESSENCE. In addition to caring for patients who were sick before the storms, Plaskett now sees an influx of a different health concern. “Right after the storm we did get the support of the U.S. Public Health Service and they brought a lot of counselors and psychologists, not only to help with debriefing and support of the hospital staff but for residents throughout the territory,” Plaskett recounts. “We do see post-traumatic stress. You see some depression. We are giving the support to be able to offer the help that our residents need.”
“In the Virgin Islands, Hurricane Maria Drowned What Irma Didn’t Destroy.” These were the words used in a New York Times headline to capture what happened in “America’s Paradise” last September. And it was accurate. With most islanders facing a measure of destruction to their homes and businesses, they looked to support from the federal government to restore some level of sanity to their everyday lives. Roberts, the Deputy Director for the Office of Management and Budget/Federal Grants Management Unit is responsible for the coordination of the federal funds that come into the territory and works closely with the Department of Finance to assess and approve the proposals from various federal agencies. Given her position, Roberts also had the daunting task of fielding questions from frustrated residents searching for answers on the status of their electricity. As of publication, there’s still a small percentage of islanders awaiting its restoration, but for the most part, government officials have turned their focus toward getting the islands equipped to combat a powerful storm in the event hurricane seasons in the future prove equally powerful. “I'm actually leading the task force on the resiliency for underground cable,” Roberts told ESSENCE. I am on that task force as the lead grant writer to look for the funding to go underground. Because we need to make certain, it's not about if, it's about when the next hurricane comes, that we are better prepared.”