CHARLOTTE AMALIE, ST THOMAS, US VIRGIN ISLANDS - SEPTEMBER 18: Carmelo Mota searches for tools in his destroyed bedroom more than a week after Hurricane Irma made landfall (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTE AMALIE, ST THOMAS, US VIRGIN ISLANDS - SEPTEMBER 18: Carmelo Mota searches for tools in his destroyed bedroom more than a week after Hurricane Irma made landfall (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

As Hurricane Irma raged outside, my mother-in-law, Loretta McCray and her friend Joseph McAlpin spent hours in the master bathroom of her St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands home. They had to press the weight of their bodies against the bathroom door to keep it closed against the powerful winds and the rain that was pouring into the house.

"I had been through hurricanes before down there. I had been through tropical storms. And I literally felt that the wind was angry," Ms. McCray remembers.


After Irma had finally moved on, she remembers the mixture of confusion and elation she and other homeowners felt: happy to be alive but confused and lacking oversight about what to do next.

"After two or three days, we had no power, no signal," says Mr. McAlpin. "And nobody coming to check on us," Ms. McCray interjects. "Nobody coming to say 'are you all OK?'"

No one seemed to know the exact hours of the curfew that was enacted on the island, and where to get food and water. And where to go if your house had been destroyed.

And they weren't alone. All over the Caribbean, in the wake of two category five storms, people are crying out for help — for housing, clean water, and food. We here in the states are just learning about the depth of the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, where Maria left at least 16 people dead. Irma and Maria have wreaked the kind of havoc that means life may not return to normal for years — if ever. Many of us think of these islands as tropical paradises where the lucky lounge on pristine beaches, and they are, but they are also home to ordinary people, American citizens, as Puerto Rico's governor has recently had to remind us, and they are suffering.

St. Thomas is a place that, if you come to live from the States, seduces you, gets on your nerves, and then works its way into your heart. I know because I lived there for several years, in my mother-in-law's now-damaged home, working freelance for a local paper. My husband and I would hang out with our babies at a bar (a no-no here, but perfectly fine there) and chat with anyone— maybe someone who'd lived in the Virgin islands for years, maybe a former Ivy-league professor, ready spend the rest of his days as a beach bum. You'd luck into someone who owned a boat, and they'd take you sailing on the bluest water ever, to a private island or a bar where you kept your own tab. But nothing happens fast there (fast food doesn't exist, not even if you go through the drive through), and there is a certain kind of logic that's sometimes hard to decipher.

And even as I had to learn to get acclimated to my temporary home, something about St. Thomas has always felt very familiar, too. People in St. Thomas wrestle with systemic issues that are very similar to the ones that Baltimoreans face: I spent a lot of my time there writing about violence, inadequate local schools and the lack of services for people in need. The storms have taken those problems and exacerbated them, and now the people suffering in the wake of Irma and Maria need our help.

Ms. McCray is comparatively lucky. She is staying with relatives in Maryland and collecting money through an online account to buy generators for people in St. Thomas. Many people won't have power for months, and access to energy is important for the elderly, small children, and anyone with medication that must be refrigerated. Fans can keep mosquitoes, which can carry serious illness, at bay.

"I often said St. Thomas is a place that speaks to my soul. It's non-pretentious you can go down there and have a lot of money, have no money and people are going to treat you the same, and I like that," my mother-in law told me.

The U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have been so welcoming to those of us here in the States, places to relax and shed the burdens of daily life. We can't forget about them now.