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Irma's Caribbean Destruction Sends Tourists Packing For Other Destinations


It looks like another storm is now threatening the Caribbean. Hurricane Maria is strengthening and heading towards the Leeward Islands. It's expected to move towards Puerto Rico and, yes, the Virgin Islands later this week. Now, some of the British Virgin Islands were decimated by Hurricane Irma. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and St. John sustained major damage. They are still largely without power and just starting to recover. The hospitality industry is the main driver of the economy in the Virgin Islands, and it's just not clear when tourists will start coming back. Here's NPR's Jason Beaubien.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Nearly two weeks after the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Caribbean slammed into St. Thomas, the Hargrave family is still assessing the damage to their hotel in Charlotte Amalie.

ADONA HARGRAVE: We had a lot of structural damage, water damage everywhere.

BEAUBIEN: Adona Hargrave's family has owned the Bunker Hill Hotel for nearly five decades. Adona is sitting next to the small pool that's now filled with murky water.

HARGRAVE: We don't have electricity. We're still waiting for running water.

BEAUBIEN: Other members of the family are clearing debris and trying to dry out waterlogged bedding and furniture. Of the hotel's two-dozen rooms, she says only four are habitable right now. Reopening by the upcoming winter season might be overly optimistic, she says. But the bigger question is when are tourists going to want to come back?

HARGRAVE: They're looking for the sunny skies and the sandy beaches. When you look at it now, it is very, very hard to see that picturesque vacation that our tourists will be looking for. But, like I said, one day at a time. One day at a time.

BEAUBIEN: Down the hill from the Bunker Hill Hotel, at Big Kahuna's Rum Shack on the waterfront, last call is currently at 5:00 p.m. because curfew goes into effect at 6:00 p.m. Late in the afternoon, however, the only people in the bar this weekend were the two bartenders, Linda Quaglia and Ariel Schamp.

ARIEL SCHAMP: Everyone off the cruise ship comes here. We're a party bar. We're here for tourists.

BEAUBIEN: With the island's infrastructure devastated, cruise ships full of tourists aren't expected to come back to St. Thomas anytime soon. In addition to losing its awning and its roof, Quaglia says Big Kahuna's Rum Shack has also lost its customers for the upcoming winter season.

LINDA QUAGLIA: We're not going to have the season that we've had for the last two, three, five, six years that I've been here.

BEAUBIEN: Officials say it could be nine months before the airport in St. Thomas is fully operational again. Streets need to be cleared. The electric grid needs to be rebuilt. Hotels, restaurants and homes need to be rehabbed. The lack of tourists hits the whole economy. Falana Roberts runs a bakery called the House of Pastries catering almost entirely to locals. She sells fresh-baked bread and a soup called Goat Water.

FALANA ROBERTS: It's a thick broth with the mutton in it and the dumpling. It is delicious.

BEAUBIEN: Even though she doesn't sell directly to tourists, she says the prospect of a huge drop in visitors here worries her.

ROBERTS: If the tourist industry closed then the people who work, they won't have their cash flow. So it still would affect me either way.

BEAUBIEN: It's an incredibly difficult time for St. Thomas, she says. Schools haven't reopened and it's unclear when they will. Roberts says she's even contemplating whether she'll be able to stay on the island in the coming months. And adding to the Virgin Islands' woes, another storm, Maria, is brewing in the Atlantic and could hit parts of the U.S. territory later this week. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, St. Thomas.

[ POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we say Irma was the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Caribbean. Irma was the strongest recorded in the Atlantic outside of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane Gilbert's peak winds of 185 mph in 1988 are thought to have matched Irma's.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: September 18, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
In this story, we say Irma was the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Caribbean. Irma was the strongest recorded in the Atlantic outside of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane Gilbert's peak winds of 185 mph in 1988 are thought to have matched Irma's.
Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.
Rolando Arrieta
Rolando Arrieta manages the Ops Desk, the team that handles the day-to-day content production and operations for the Newsroom and Programming. He also works closely with software developers in designing content management systems in an effort to maintain efficient production and publication workflows for broadcast newsmagazines, podcasts and digital story presentations.