75 days after Maria, this is life in St. Croix

75 days after Maria, this is life in St. Croix
Posted at 10:33 AM, Dec 03, 2017

The sound of rattling generators fill Tarik McMillan's ears when he wakes up.

The noise is all around him, a mix between a car engine and a really big blender.

On St. Croix, an island where many places still don't have power, the diesel generators in his neighborhood rumble through the night.

He walks to the kitchen and greets his grandpa, who's boiling water on a propane stove to make coffee. Without power, the coffeemaker is a museum piece.

It's been 75 days since Hurricane Maria hammered the US Virgin Islands, and although the buzz of daily life is returning, the storm's ghost hovers over everything.

Power remains out for more than 60% of the territory. On St. Croix, the largest of the islands, only about a fourth of residents -- known as Crucians -- have electricity. Many homes still have no roofs. Cell networks are spotty.

This is the new normal for McMillan and the islands' other residents as they negotiate their daily lives. There's a gigantic line on their calendar -- before Maria, and after. Almost nothing about the two is the same.

Morning coffee

Three days before Maria made landfall, McMillan, 25, went to stay with his grandfather. At the time, the 76-year-old was still recovering from surgery. McMillan didn't want him facing the Category 5 hurricane alone.

Since the storm, life has slowed to a crawl. TV isn't an option. So McMillan has found new ways to keep busy. He exercises. He reads.

He also got a dog -- a pit bull mix -- and takes it for walks around the block, noting the hurricane damage to his neighbors' homes. Some of the houses he had never noticed, because before Maria hit he never walked around his neighborhood.

"There isn't much talking," he says. They just wave.

On the road

By 11:30 a.m., it's time for McMillan to head to work. He climbs into his Ford Escape and drives from Christiansted.

Heavy traffic isn't a problem like it was during the weeks right after Maria, when the islands' governor imposed curfews to allow emergency crews and utility workers to do their jobs without interruptions.

But he's careful. Many stoplights still aren't working. And some drivers play "chicken" with each other at intersections to see who'll go first.

All around, McMillan sees the way Maria has rearranged the landscape.

"There's not much that stands out right now," he says. "Everything feels like it's been this way for a very long time."

He passes gas stations with crumbled walls. A bushy field across from a graveyard is now a dumping ground for broken branches and battered tree trunks.

Everywhere, bright, blue tarps double as temporary roofs.

A silver sculpture, with a little-known story about the slave trade in the Caribbean, no longer stands upright on the grounds of one of the island's two public high schools.

Further to the west, the grounds that host the island's annual agriculture fair remain in disrepair. The hangar-like buildings, usually filled with locally grown crops, no longer have roofs. The yellow, wooden booths where vendors sold dishes lie crumpled.

"It looks like a giant had a temper tantrum," McMillan says.

The fair has been a St. Croix tradition for 46 years. There won't be one next year.

At work

McMillan works part-time at the Boys & Girls Club as a youth counselor. In the days after the storm, he helped salvage materials and clean up debris from the club's uninhabitable building in Christiansted.

He's lucky to have a job.

So many don't. More than 1,000 people in the US Virgin Island's tourism industry, islanders' bread and butter, remain out of work.

At the Boys & Girls Club, McMillan helps teens with homework and tries to keep them out of trouble.

Some of the kids don't really want to talk about the storm.

"Sometimes kids in general blur the line between resilience and denial," he says. "People get so busy they forget to deal with the emotional stuff until it shows up as a different behavior later."

Since the storm, the number of students he mentored had dropped. Maria caused an exodus of islanders to the US mainland.

The students who remain rotate through school buildings that are still standing in four-hour blocks -- meaning they no longer get a full day of school.

At the Boys & Girls Club, they play basketball on a rebuilt court donated this year by former NBA player Rakeem Christmas, a St. Croix native.

Maria snatched away chucks of the court's tiled surface, leaving bone-jarring patches of concrete underneath.

Two weeks ago, McMillan started a temporary stint with FEMA as a crisis counselor. He'll be tending to residents who sorely need it as they deal with the stresses of post-Maria life.

"There are many complications associated with the aftermath of the storm in addition to not having power," he says. "There are elderly people who were not able to apply for certain services. Some that are living in homes that are mold infested. Living alone. No generator."
There's not much he can do about their circumstance, McMillan says. But he can offer them a platform to share their feelings.

Nights at home

On many evenings, McMillan gets home just as the sunlight starts to fade. He tries to avoid the pitch blackness that descends in many areas without powered street lamps.

About 6 p.m., he and his grandfather flip on their generator, adding to the rumble throughout the neighborhood.

When he cooks on the propane stove, it's usually rice and beans. This is a step up from the bland cheese tortellini ready-to-eat meals he had in the chaotic first days after Maria. He'd spice them up with Adobe seasoning.

McMillan never saves much of whatever he cooks. On most days, the refrigerator only cools food for about four hours and leftovers won't last beyond lunchtime the next day.

It's not ideal, but there's grace in the knowledge that McMillan and his granddad, unlike hundreds of others, don't have to buy ice every day to cool their food and drinks.

Sometimes McMillan will talk on the phone with his brother Biko, 21, who lives in Texas. Before Maria, the close-knit brothers could easily chat for an hour. Now they have to cut their talks short before they lose the signal or McMillan's phone dies.

Before he heads off to bed, he turns his generator off to save on gas and money.

He drifts off to sleep with the sounds of diesel generators around him.

A rare outing

The other day, to boost his spirits, he went to the movies when the island's only theater screened "The Foreigner." He loves Jackie Chan.

"For a brief moment, I forgot that we were in post-Maria," McMillan says. "It felt like a normal night going to the movies."

But even in the confines of the theater, the reality of their daily struggles intruded.

Before the movie was an ad for a local telecom. A pitchwoman said the company was working to restore services to the crippled islands.

"She just shattered my dream; shattered my normal moment," he says.

For he knew that after the credits started rolling, he'd be returning to a home without electricity, no promise of reliable cell service and an island that he and thousands of other Crucians barely recognize.