December 11 – I got up a bit after 5am to get breakfast started. I turned on the oven and put all the ingredients into a pan. Made a quick trip to the rest room then returned to put the pans in the pre-heated oven. It needed to cook at a higher temp for 15 minutes then be turned down for the remaining time.
I collected my clothes and returned to the bathroom to clean up and finish getting dressed. Went back in to the kitchen to see how things were progressing only to find someone had shut off the oven. WTH! Who would do that?! I pulled the pans out and turned the oven back on, muttering curse words under my breath. Ovens back to the proper temperature I returned the pans to finish cooking. They didn’t quite finish on time, but close enough it all got consumed before the teams left for their work day.
They do a team meeting on Monday mornings so I got to say a farewell to everyone. Its amazing how close you can become to people in such a short amount of time.
I spent the rest of my time packing my things and calling different taxi companies trying to ensure I had a ride to the airport. I took this video of our living quarters and here are some random pictures from around base.
These deserve a section of their own. All Hands is doing some amazing work.
The taxi driver got us to the airport about 3 hours before my flight and I was thankful I’d heeded that advice. The lines were long for those of us checking bags. The agents were hand writing the boarding passes and the luggage tags because the computer system wasn’t working. I don’t know if this is a regular thing since the hurricanes, or if it was just timing. I felt for them.
I was caught off guard when I went into the airport and was immediately facing a line for customs. Ummm…I’m a U.S. citizen traveling from one U.S. territory to another, I didn’t have my passport. The customs agent was less than impressed but accepted my drivers license. It was at that moment I realized I did have my passport card. He seemed pleased with my find. Sheesh! I guess I should have expected that?
I had a little time before my flight so I picked up a few gifts from the shop, a sandwich, and a Painkiller. I bumped into a fellow volunteer and had a nice chat until it was time to board. Off to Miami then on to Denver.
Here are a few pictures of the destruction that weren’t otherwise posted.
December 10 – The base day off changed after I had booked my travel so I got an unexpected day to play. A friend of mine had introduced me to her niece that lives in St. Thomas and I had the good fortune of it also being her day off.
Debbie and her boyfriend picked me up and we made our way to Brewers Bay for some snorkeling. Before the hurricane it was nearly guaranteed you’d see sea turtles amongst the sea grass. There were no traces of the sea grass or the turtles we’d hoped to see but I still thoroughly enjoyed myself. The water wasn’t as warm as I’d expected but it was so refreshing after the days of manual labor in the heat and humidity. Not to mention its been far too long since I’ve spent any time in or on the water.
From the beach we headed to Debbies house to get a quick shower and relax a bit. I could just sit on her balcony all day and be perfectly content. Here is a panoramic video.
Curious iguana in the tree
As silly as it may sound I had Debbie take me to the grocery store. I wanted to make some food for the crew before my departure. It was an interesting experience. Not a lot different from what I’m accustomed to, but definitely more expensive and the lines were long. Took a few pictures of the waterfront along the way.
Chicken and her chicks getting a little too close to traffic
Solar farm that had just been finished weeks before Irma (sorry about the reflection)
They had planned to take me to Duffys in the Redhook area of town but they were closed. Debbie was disappointed, she was hoping to introduce me to The Painkiller, an island specialty. We ended up having a fabulous dinner at XO Café instead.
Bellies full and feeling very relaxed they returned me to the base. I planned to make some chocolate chip cookies but was coming up short on time with lights out looming less than an hour away and only tiny tins available for baking. I cranked cookies out as best I could and one of my pals was doing a great job of getting them handed out for me. Several people came up to the kitchen to give me love. Why didn’t I do this day one? I could have been so popular!
I prepared the eggs and other ingredients for green chile frittata for breakfast in the morning then took myself to bed. I was leaving the next day but wanted to be up early enough that the frittata had time to cook before lights on.
December 9 – We had a fairly large team for my final work day in St. Thomas. The teams gathered as usual to load up the vans but ours was conspicuously missing. Apparently our driver was on holiday, and the back-up driver was a no show. A bit of time was spent trying to track someone down but ultimately we ended up taking a couple of the base vehicles to the site for the day.
I got on all my gear and got to work bagging debris. Several others were inside the house as well, bagging debris and getting to work on pulling down the wall panels. The rest of the team was outside planning the safe and efficient removal of the full fridge. I know there were ropes and pulleys and plenty of bodies involved in the process. It was a big job that seems to have gone pretty smoothly and I thought quickly. Here are some pictures of the progress.
Devising a plan
Visitors lurking in the shadows
After a full morning of clearing debris we took a nice break for lunch and savored the view.
Lunch break views
Our large team made quick work of debris removal. By the end of the day we had gutted the needed walls and kitchen and hauled the debris up to the dumpster. In the same bedroom we had encountered the rat yesterday we found the remains of another in the rafters. As the panels were pulled off quite a nest was discovered. Hopefully the remaining rat relatives will find a more appropriate place to nest.
Complete rat skeleton in the rafters
We wrapped up our work day feeling good about having the job done a few days before expected. I gave the home owner a big hug and wished him the best as he works on rebuilding his life.
December 8 – There were just a few hours of cleaning and QC work to do on my first work site. It felt good to see the progress we’d made.
The day before I remembered thinking to myself “this has been hard, but thankfully all the stuff was being moved down the steep hill rather than up one.” Those words would haunt me today as we headed toward the next site and were told it was going to be nearly 60 stairs from the street down to the house. And yes, everything had to be brought up to the road to be put in a dumpster.
The roof of the house from the top of the stairs.
I was having some doubts about me physically being able to make it through the day. I breathed an odd sigh of relief when we were told the team would need to split in two groups. One group would be in Tyvex bagging items in the house then bringing them to the patio. The other group would haul items from the patio up the stairs. Bring on the Tyvex!
Part of the reason Tyvex was necessary inside the home.
Tyvex with a view. Look and feel a bit like a mad scientist!
We made quick work of the items in the back bathroom which seemed to be of the most concern. From there we moved into the connected bedroom and started clearing a closet. My bagging partner squealed and proclaimed “RAT!”. It was hiding amongst the bags on the shelf and apparently had been unsettled by our cleaning. We paused for a moment then came to the conclusion it had to go so we could continue our work. We grabbed a broom and “coaxed” it down from the shelf. It scurried across the floor, then across my boots, on the way to the far corner. I squealed this time! The door to the now non-existent deck was opened so we again encouraged it to go find a more suitable place to hang out. We had a good laugh and went back to work.
The view from the master bedroom of this house was stunning.
Knowing the next day was going to require moving a refrigerator up the stairs to the street the team leaders had gathered in the kitchen to plan. The refrigerator was snuggly tucked into the cabinets and had to be pulled away from the wall to get a better idea of the task before them. In the process someone had grabbed a hold of the door in such a way it pulled open. There was more squealing. Ok, it wasn’t so much squealing as scolding. Rule #2 Do not open the fridge! It may seem like an odd rule, but if you think about the fact power has been off since the hurricane(s) hit and its hot/humid as hell I’m sure you can imagine the nasty stuff festering inside.
We wrapped up work day feeling pretty productive. Equipment was decontaminated and hauled back up the stairs. Jeremy and I took a few moments to pose with the “My red hair gives me superpowers” t-shirt.
Here are a few other random pictures taken near the job site.
There is a stairway up to a house somewhere in there
Interesting tree roots
View from the side yard
His sweet pup Lola
Blue and Wimpy
View from the narrow area we found to park the van
December 7 – The team, with a few changes, went back to the same site to finish up work. The team lead had received word we would not be getting a dumpster so all the piles of debris would need to be moved down to the street. FEMA had provided guidelines on proper placement and grouping (construction materials, appliances, household waste, e-waste, etc) of the debris pile, but that hadn’t taken into account not every properly had a flat 10′ of space to pile things off the road. It was going to be a long day of marching up and down the steep driveway.
There was quite a bit of debris on the front patio and along the side of the house. It was a bit treacherous trying to get bags from the patio around the house and down the driveway. Vegetation had grown over several hazards (loose boards and downed wires) and losing your footing could mean an unfortunate tumble down the hill. It was hot and tiresome and I definitely had moments of “what the f*ck was I thinking?”. A disagreement between a couple of team members made things extra uncomfortable.
Clothes, dressers, mattresses, shoes, and countless other once prized possessions
I dubbed myself queen of the rubble pile when I found my scepter.
The occasional breather left time to be silly. We had a couple unexpected visitors.
There was a grey tarantula as well but he disappeared before I could get a picture. I was oddly calm about that encounter, but I didn’t care for the fact I didn’t know where he disappeared to.
The piles are growing…
Seating comes at a premium. Jeremy has sworn to protect our leader. Safety first!
By the end of the day we’d moved a shit ton of stuff. I think Thea gave a more accurate measure of the meters of stuff, but I’m sticking with shit ton.
I snapped this last photo of the day on the way back to base.
December 6 – The early risers were stirring before the lights were flipped on at 6:30. I crawled off the air mattress with an unusual amount of vigor. No doubt motivated by the fact I had 1 hour to get ready; coffee/breakfast consumed, lunch prepared, and some wrangling of the locks.
At 7:45 the team leaders have a meeting then we all load up our respective vans and head to the job site. They’ve hired a small crew of taxi drivers to shuttle the teams around. They stay with us all day then return us safely back to base. Our drivers name was Ricky. He politely answered my curious questions about the Island and locals.
The drive was a little adventure. Steep and narrow streets winding up to the duplex we were working on that day. The view was really nice. The driveway was not so much…haha.
Most of the homeowners possessions had already been cleared and the house gutted.
Gutted lower floor
Cockeyed glasses and I hard at work sweeping up nails and screws
Gutted top floor. Only about a quarter of the roof remained and it didn’t appear very stable.
The rest of the roof
Birds nest in the light fixture
Found a pile of scriptures printed on papers about the size of fortune cookies. Wonder if the bible left the outline in the dirt?
I snapped this lovely picture shortly before the downpour.
We discovered a tree full of Iguanas. I counted 11, but they blend in so well its hard to know for sure.
We spent the day tying up loose ends, hoping a dumpster would arrive. We started hauling trash and construction materials down to the street in preparation but the dumpster never came. The heat and humidity were pretty stifling so I took the time I needed in the shade to keep from overheating. We pack along plenty of water and even some Gatorade powder to keep from getting dehydrated. It was definitely the most physical exertion I’ve put forth in some time, but we still found ways to laugh.
Calling in reinforcements
Thats the ocean out there
Inside joke. Loved Kimberlees sense of humor
We wrapped up the work day by decontaminating all the tools, protective equipment, gloves, and boots.
We were one of the first teams to base so I was luck enough to get a shower before much of a line had formed. The team meeting went well and dinner couldn’t be served quick enough. Its amazing how much better food tastes when you’ve worked up an appetite. The most impressive part is it was prepared by fellow volunteers. No small task creating a menu for 60+ people.
I was so exhausted I stayed to visit with folks for a little while but headed to my bed before lights out at 9pm.
I learned about All Hands when researching relief volunteering after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. At the time they were the only organization that didn’t require you meet one of these criteria: volunteering with a group, pay to volunteer, or have a special skill (chainsaw operation, construction, etc).
I enjoyed my experience so much that when hurricane after hurricane came baring down this summer I paid closer attention to their updates to see what opportunities there would be to help beyond just donating money. I was particularly concerned with the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico because they had taking a hit from both Irma and Marie and it didn’t seem like they were getting the assistance they needed to start their recovery.
Things being up in the air with work I kept putting of volunteering worried that the timing may be bad. Eventually I realized there never seems to be a good time to take a vacation so I completed an application and was provided dates they could accommodate me.
I took a red eye flight to Miami, endured an early morning long layover, then arrived on schedule to St. Thomas’ Cyril E King airport. It was oddly surreal because I remembered seeing pictures of the damaged airport on the news.
I collected my bags and caught a taxi to the volunteer base. I don’t recall going through a single intersection with a working signal light. There were large potholes where the road had washed out. A single cruise ship sat in port. I was told there was another anchored on the other side housing FEMA workers and Americorp volunteers. The devastation is not as obvious, the steep hillsides and vegetation do a fair job of hiding the scars.
I arrived at base and was greeted by the volunteer coordinator. She showed me around, pointed out an available place to sleep, gave me a rundown of the daily schedule, then left me to get settled in. There were 40+ volunteers living communally in this church hall. Its hard to imagine it being very harmonious but somehow it works.
By 5pm all the teams had returned from the field and gave a report on their day. New volunteers were given an opportunity to introduce themselves. Departing volunteers got an opportunity to say their goodbyes. And housekeeping duties were assigned.
At dinner I made some new friends then retired to bed early in hopes of catching up on sleep before a long day of manual labor.
First view of St. Thomas
My neighbors. Isn’t the woodwork and lighting of this hall just stunning?
Info board. Note Rule #1 Don’t die!
View from the front of the church
Personal protective equipment