The number of confirmed fatalities on St. Thomas and St. John in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma has risen to four and “it should not be unexpected that we will find more,” Gov. Kenneth Mapp said at a press conference shortly before 6 p.m. Thursday evening. Mapp did not say at the press conference, but a later report from Government House indicated all four were on St. Thomas.
He said that while the toll will probably rise, it does not look like it will be a much larger number. Mapp said he would not say more about the individual circumstances, while families are notified and search and rescue operations continue.
“I will try to give you that information as it becomes available,” he said.
There has been extensive damage on St. Thomas and the V.I. Government has “lost very valuable assets,” including two fire stations, two police stations and “the roof of Government House I am told was devastated or blown off,” Mapp said.
Schneider Regional Medical Center has been severely damaged and evacuated. In a statement earlier Thursday, Mapp said the hospital’s cancer unit’s walls are damaged, the windows blown in and the roof gone, while the “membrane of the entire roof” of the hospital is gone.
Patients are being evacuated. Of 37 patients admitted, 11 are already at Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital on St. Croix and another 26 are being prepared to leave. There are medical personnel at the airport “to triage them” and then at 6:30 p.m. they were to fly to Puerto Rico for treatment in facilities there, “so we are emptying Schneider Hospital at this very moment,” Mapp said.
St. Thomas residents who need emergency care should still go to Schneider, Mapp said, however. Schneider’s emergency room is still operational, he said.
“They plan to move to a temporary facility but it is functional,”he said.
But the hospital cannot admit patients to stay and those who need more care will need to be transported elsewhere.
“Because the hospital is so devastated; destroyed, practically, HHS (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) is going to assist us in finding a temporary hospital facility,” Mapp said.
It will not be tents, as were used after Hugo, because of concern about more windy weather on the way. But they are thinking of converting a school. They may continue to use the Myrah Keating Community Health Center on St. John.
Asked whether there is any information on St. John, which has been largely cut off from communication and transportation since the storm, said he knew “only that they seem to have seen much more destruction than St. Thomas,” and that the Julius Sprauve School, which was a storm shelter, had “lost part of its roof. And that is a concrete building.”
Two St. Thomas shelters: the E. Benjamin Oliver Elementary School Shelter and the Eldra Schulterbrandt Facility, were affected by flooding. In response, “we are working feverishly to open a new shelter at the Lockhart Elementary School,” he said.
For some good news, Mapp said the Water and Power Authority is working to energize the Lockhart Elementary School for power, “and in furtherance of doing that we expect to energize the Paul M. Pearson and Oswald Harris Court and the neighborhood.”
Mapp said he had been on the phone with federal officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security and pushed for what he felt were the most pressing immediate needs.
“What we want to see in our distribution center is four major power generating systems, because we are gong to power up additional shelters on the island; tarpaulins, tarpaulins, tarpaulins and more tarpaulins; hygiene packs, cots, blankets, more water and more MREs (U.S. military ready to eat meals),” Mapp said.
The plan for now is to try to cover people in place, with tarps over their roofs, while setting up several alternate sites to house people who have more severely damaged properties.
The U.S. Coast Guard is checking the harbor and clearing the docks so relief vessels can come, and he expects the Coast Guard to soon have information on whether ferry service can resume yet or not, he said.
“We have lost a few of the ferry vessels as well,” he said at another point in the press conference.
Mapp lifted the curfew on St. Croix, effective immediately. The big island was affected much less and power is back on for most of the island. Government employees are to report to work Friday, he said.
But he continued the curfew on St. Thomas.
“I know it is a difficult thing to ask,” he said, of the curfew. He said people have been slowing recovery work with well-meaning efforts. Some have been using power tools to chop power lines, to clear roads. That creates additional dangers, if the lines become live, and slows efforts to bring back power, he said.
Emergency supplies that were pre-positioned on St. Croix are being shipped to St. Thomas and six distribution centers are being set up.
Mapp said he tried to fly to St. Thomas Thursday but there was a difficulty with the helicopter and he will come Friday.
Mapp said President Trump has signed disaster declaration, which “really opens up avenues of support,” and that the U.S. Senate voted Thursday for a $15.8 billion support package for several U.S. disaster areas, in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Asked how the storm response would be affected by the government’s ongoing fiscal crisis, Mapp said the federal government will help.
“We are citizens of the greatest nation on earth,” and “all levels of resources will be provided to the Virgin Islands … on the 100 percent dime of the national treasury,” he said.
While the disaster relief funds are pegged to a 25 percent local match, Mapp said “no one is demanding the 25 percent up front before acting.”
“The reason we are getting that kind of support is because we are part of the family of the United States of America,” he added.