This Is What It's Like For Thousands Trying To Find Food And Water In The Hurricane-Hit US Virgin Islands
"I feel we were given false hope," one resident said as she waited hours in line for food. "You hear that it's going to get better, but today I still had to struggle to be able to feed my kids."
SAINT THOMAS, US Virgin Islands — Akoya Emmanuel said she had two choices Friday morning: make the trek into town to find bleach to clean the mold from the exposed walls of her home or stand in line for hours to ensure her two daughters had something to eat that day.
Like thousands of others in the US Virgin Islands, the 33-year-old single mother from St. Thomas lives tucked in the hills, where winding roads are still ensnared by mangled trees and overhanging power lines. For residents without access to transportation after Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated these islands, simply traveling to receive food and supplies is an all-day event. Many people's cars still lie under chunks of homes, roots, and sheet metal, and public transportation has only recently returned and is limited to town hubs.
"If you need something bad enough you have to come out," Emmanuel said as she shuffled forward in line to receive a case of boxed water and canned Vienna sausages from military personnel. "I have nothing. What we have been surviving on is those sausages and that's if we get it. That's our hope for today."
Sandwiched by hundreds of others waiting for packages of food, Emmanuel said this was her second attempt to attain supplies from the federal distribution center. A lack of power and cell phone service for large swaths of the island has made communications nearly impossible.
"We're not being notified when stuff is being handed out," she said. "You come and line up at 9 a.m. because you're told they start at 10 a.m. and then you find out it's not happening today or they start at noon."
Akoya Emmanuel describes the situation in the US Virgin Islands in the wake of the hurricanes.
And while they were grateful for the desperately needed help, many residents, including Emmanuel, said that they were concerned for their health after weeks of eating high-sodium, processed food.
"I have two young kids," she said. "Eating this stuff for a month causes health risks."
A few miles away, hundreds more were lined up at My Brother's Workshop, a nonprofit group that has been handing out 1,000 meals a day since Hurricane Irma first shredded the islands.
About a dozen people there echoed Emmanuel's complaint; they couldn't, or could no longer, subsist on the food distributed by the government: sausages, chips, and candy bars.
"A lot of us are diabetic and after weeks of that we can't just live on chips and candy," Paulette Sylvest, 55, told BuzzFeed News.
BuzzFeed News visited two distribution centers on Thursday and Friday, waiting in line to pick up a cardboard box filled with Kit Kat bars and potato chips.
Further compounding the problem, 35% of children on the US Virgin Islands live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level and a majority of them receive government benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps, but stores can't accept the payment cards without power for their processing systems. According to a 2010 census, 22% of the islands' nearly 105,000 residents live in poverty.
Dozens of people complained that they couldn't access food or supplies from their remote, stranded neighborhoods where, they said, local and federal personnel support was nonexistent. BuzzFeed News crisscrossed 13 miles in St. Thomas and saw military presence at four locations: two encampments and two distribution centers near downtown.
"There's no one been up by me in weeks," said Christine Bougouneau while waiting in line to receive food, water, and toilet paper at My Brother's Workshop. "If they could come to the markets or more in the neighborhoods we would be thankful. We need help."
The 69-year-old said she arrived hours in advance to ensure she got a "good spot" to secure enough supplies for her and her husband, who she said is battling cancer and can't make the arduous journey down into town.
Federal officials have pushed back on that claim. In a Thursday press release, FEMA said thousands of federal staff, including 600 FEMA employees, were on the ground in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands engaging in response and recovery operations, including delivering millions of meals and liters of water. The agency also said there are 17 distribution sites scattered across the four US territories.
However, US Army PA Calvin Belton, who was flown into St. Thomas Wednesday and specializes in water purification, told BuzzFeed News Saturday morning that he's unsure where the food and supplies are going.
"We are working the forklifts and helping FEMA load up water pallets, tarps, and food into shipping containers," Belton said from his station at the airport. "I don't know where they are going."
A line forms Friday outside My Brother's Workshop in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands.
More than 20 people told BuzzFeed News they would love to be able to clean their homes with basic supplies, wash their clothes with laundry detergent, or shampoo their hair. Some wanted a change of clothes, underwear, and bedsheets. Others, still living in the dark after the sun sets at 6:30 p.m., were hoping for flashlights and batteries.
Shirley Honore, who has been sleeping in his car to avoid the mosquitoes that breed in the standing water in his torn-open house, said he needed bug repellent or a tarp.
For those lucky to still have cash, residents can buy food from a select few open stores, though people say prices have risen and long lines make things difficult.
"People have run out of money, therefore they've run out of the means to get soap," Jay Harrigan said while standing in line for private donations. "People's homes are still wet. Their sheets are wet. People need disinfectant, mops, and personal hygiene stuff.
"It's crazy. People don't have money because all money has just stopped," the 38-year-old said.
Harrigan owns a souvenir shop downtown, which, like many tourist businesses, are now seemingly worthless. Taxi drivers, hair stylists, jewelry store owners, bartenders, maids, and tour guides are all now wondering where their next paycheck will come from.
"I know [jobs] are going to come back," Harrigan said after loading her plastic bags with toothpaste, bug spray, paper towels, and apples. "The worry is when. Everything is a when."
The staff at My Brother's Workshop have made more than 10,000 meals for people since Hurricane Irma first hit more than three weeks ago, thanks to volunteers, as well as donations from restaurants, private parties, and nonprofit organizations. Churches and community organizations across the US territories have rallied to help the local government feed at-risk residents and those in need.
"We're also delivering hundreds of meals to the elderly and disabled at nursing homes," said Jenny Hawkes, the executive director. "These people are not being serviced by our government agencies so we have to fill the gaps the best we can."
Hawkes said she received a call to help feed about 40 employees from the Department of Health and Human Services, who were also struggling to access a balanced meal nearly a month after the first hurricane bore down on the islands.
"They're just not going to points that they need to," Emmanuel said of the government response. "I was feeding strangers I didn't know because that's what you are supposed to do. Old people are going without food and water."
The US Air Mobility Command told BuzzFeed News it has flown in 1,100 tons of aid and supplies to the region, including pallets of water and FEMA support. The National Guard and Army have erected tent cities on two large fields on St. Thomas and massive ships are floating in docks, visibly loaded to the brim with crates of supplies.
Jackie Talbert, 49, picks up food Thursday afternoon at a federal distribution center in St. Thomas.
BuzzFeed News did not see a military or local authority presence while touring most of the neighborhoods in St. Thomas or parts of St. John, and residents say it's because of a lack of communication between local leaders and federal reserves.
"There's a massive logistics issue and it's pure chaos at the docks," said Vernon Araujo, the development director of the Family Resource Center. "There are containers on top of containers and we don't know what supplies are in there."
The 33-year-old says he's spent the past few weeks trying to chase down information and track the outpouring of government aid and private donations.
"The governor is doing a shitty job," he said frankly. "We still have people stranded without food and I'm standing here looking at crates of it."
Under the thick, heavy afternoon heat Friday, Emmanuel, who walked with a limp after being struck by plywood during one of the storms, said she and her daughters have been sharing a mattress after the hurricanes rendered most of their home uninhabitable.
"I feel we were given false hope," she said. "You hear that it's going to get better, but today I still had to struggle to be able to feed my kids."