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Viecques has even harder time getting DC's attention

020917Peterthomson

Peter Thomson

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By Peter Thomson
Columnist

Sunday, February 17, 2019

About a 20-minute hopper flight east of San Juan is the island of Viecques (Vee-eck-ess). It’s a gem of nature featuring wildlife sanctuaries, rain forest trails, perhaps the best beaches in the Caribbean and wild horses everywhere. The latter clutter up the narrow roads and munch happily in open fields. There are two towns: Isabella II, the capital, and Esperanza, the tourist center. Viecques also has a small port, some fishing and a bit of agriculture, but today depends on tourism as its economic driver. The 20-mile island is strewn with small hotels and guest houses, one fancy hotel (a “W”) and several upscale bed and breakfasts. It’s a kickback/layback kind of place that appeals to the budget-minded and rich alike.

There are tenuous ties to Elizabeth City. At Lazy Jack’s the manager’s granddad, Mr. Anderson, worked at the former White & Bright grocery store, and Kate, the owner of El Quenepo, an upscale restaurant, comes from Raleigh, as do some of her staff. Otherwise the real bond is that both Elizabeth City and Viecques know hurricanes. Intimately. Here we still talk about Floyd flooding, Isabel knocking down power lines, and how, if Florence hadn’t turned south at the last moment, our downtown would have been under water.

In Viecques, they considered themselves lucky when Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm, went north of the island in September 2017, and not so lucky when about two weeks later Hurricane Maria came to call. A Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 130 mph, Maria ripped across the island, destroying infrastructure and accommodations alike. Well warned, the islanders stayed hunkered down, but none had ever seen the kind of winds that ripped second stories off houses and scattered power poles. By luck, none of the 9,000 inhabitants, or the few visitors who couldn’t get off the island, were killed.

In the aftermath, differences were made clear. Here in Elizabeth City we’re blessed with strong state and federal support, a system of roads that makes help readily available, and a good emergency network of help among communities. In Viecques the tourists (and the jobs they generate) left. It took three months before there was consistent electrical power in Isabel II and more than a year for the whole island to be re-powered. Water on the island comes piped in from a point near San Juan, and when San Juan had no power, no water arrived. After three weeks, island cisterns ran dry. Fortunately, the San Juan pumps were powered up 10 days later and a crisis was averted.

Of the millions of dollars in aid sent to Puerto Rico, Viecques got just $250,000, with the municipal government spending many times more than that and going heavily into debt. Few insurance claims have been paid amidst rumors that the companies are applying for bankruptcy. Last week Burr and Linda, owners of a large inn, finally got their view back: new windows paid for by themselves. They had been boarded up for 18 months.

Some of the difficulty can be attributed to bad luck or incompetence, but most folks there believe it’s because Viecques is in one of the poorest U.S. regions, away from our central government, in an area with no political clout and few resources. We know that here in Elizabeth City help is on its way after a storm. There, however, it’s a make-do-and-hope situation: You have to rely upon your neighbors, not the authorities.

When in the future you hear some politician say, “My fellow Americans…” remember that that’s who the people in Viecques are: fellow Americans who were hit badly, who are doing their best to get back on their feet and who, when the going got tough, were forgotten. So for your next southern holiday, if you’re the kind who likes great beaches, natural splendor and a laid-back style, consider a vacation in Viecques. You’ll be most welcome.

Peter Thomson is a resident of Elizabeth City.

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