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Baltimore natives lead relief effort for U.S. Virgin Islands devastated by Irma

For days, Jesse Vann couldn’t stop watching the news. He constantly monitored Facebook, searching for updates on the monster storm that was barreling toward his friends in the Caribbean.

Vann was in Vermont for his best friend’s wedding when Hurricane Irma tore through St. John — the smallest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Vann’s home for the past five years — earlier this month.

“It’s just a nightmare situation,” the Baltimore native said last week. “I felt helpless until I realized, I had to do something.”

Amd the situation could become even more nightmarish, as Hurricane Maria approaches the region. Forecasters say it could reach the U.S. Virgin Islands as early as Wednesday.

Along with other U.S. Virgin Islands residents who found themselves stateside when the storm hit, Vann, 32, helped launch the Virgin Islands Relief Fund. The group has raised thousands of dollars and assembled tens of thousands pounds of supplies for people devastated by the storm.

St. John, home to roughly 5,000 people, may be the site of Irma's worst devastation on American soil. Category 5 winds of 150 mph wracked the 20-mile island from coast to coast.

A private plane arranged by the fund was scheduled to take off from Baltimore on Friday, bringing emergency medical supplies to the islands. Planes carrying food, water, clothes, batteries, bug spray and other necessary supplies assembled by the Virgin Islands Relief Fund have left Philadelphia over the past few days.

John Nash, who has a home in Baltimore and in St. John, was planning to be aboard the plane Friday. St. John doesn’t have an airport, so they planned to land on another island before medical materials are transported by boat or helicopter.

Nash, president of the relief fund, said people on the islands are “resilient, but they’re struggling.”

“Their spirits are good, but need our help. They need to know we haven’t forgotten them,” said Nash, owner and executive director of Medical Service BVI and a Loyola University Maryland graduate. “We need to rebuild the schools, the businesses, the restaurants and, of course, the homes.”

Nash and Vann met through their efforts to help the island recover.

Vann, director of the relief fund, hasn’t been back to St. John since the storm. Cellphone service has been spotty on the island and many are without power. But the information and pictures he’s gotten from friends who remained there through the storm provided a window into the destruction.

“It’s not even recognizable,” said Vann, who attended Loyola Blakefield high school in Towson. “Houses just vanished. Half of the island has lost everything they have.”

Vann, a developer, said his home has been damaged — many windows were blown out, parts of the roof are gone and the front porch is missing. For now, Vann said, he isn’t focusing on his house or the other properties his company has built.

“That’s not a priority because there’s still people who need help,” he said. “We’re focused on the relief effort for the people there.”

Irma also hit neighboring St. Thomas, devastating the local hospital and homes and businesses across the island. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, only St. Croix was largely spared.

President Donald J. Trump has declared the islands part of a major disaster zone and federal aid was sent to help residents recover.

Three FEMA urban-search-and-rescue task forces are operating in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and have done targeted searches on more than 2,000 structures there. The U.S. National Guard also helped evacuate about 1,200 people from the islands.

About 443,000 meals, 270,000 liters of water, and one generator, along with other supplies, were transferred to St. Thomas and St. John, according to FEMA.

Many residents were reportedly outraged that it took several days for the National Guard to arrive.

Kenneth Mapp, governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, said the delay in mobilizing the National Guard to St. John was unavoidable because the harbor was filled with overturned boats, making landings difficult.

After two massive hurricanes hit the United States back to back, much media attention has focused on damage to the mainland — predominantly in Texas and in Florida. Vann said he and other organizers want to drum up awareness of the island residents’ plight.

“Keep an eye on the Virgin Islands,” he said. “We are still American citizens down there — don’t forget about us.”

The Washington Post contributed to this article.

trichman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/TaliRichman

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