Today my mother and I had the chance to go to St. John. This island, one of three sizable islands in the Virgin Islands that belong to the United States, has been made popular because it is a place frequented by people like the Rockafellers in previous generations and by Kenny Chesney and others now. In traveling to the island, I sought to understand its natural beauty as well as something about the spirit and state of the people, especially given that the Virgin Islands are on the UN list of non-self governing territories, the first one of this list that I have yet to visit. And while I saw some things in St. Thomas yesterday that raised my interest, it was what I saw today in St. John that really led me to think that there are some serious issues with the status of the Virgin Islands.
Over the course of a few hours spent in St. John, I had the chance both to observe as well as query some people on the ground about conditions in St. John. And it struck me that there is a stark contrast between certain aspects of the area. For example, there are two main settlements on the island, one of them in Cruz Bay in the west of the island, where the ferry deposits you from St. Thomas, and the other in on the western side of the island at Coral Bay. There are numerous other smaller settlements, to be sure, but these are the main ones. In addition, there are numerous beaches scattered throughout the island, most of them part of the Virgin Islands National Park that takes up some 3/4 of the island of St. John, and most of them beautiful areas of sand and gorgeous water in coves without a great deal of amenities.
Similarly, it was striking that while there were a great many construction projects going on–including a new mansion for Kenny Chesney on the top of a high hill looking down over the northern coast of the island, there were a lot of projects that simply were not going anywhere that had been destroyed by hurricanes. A beautiful area that used to have a hotel on it is now an abandoned ruin that is only accessible by boat or a hiking trail from Cruz Bay, and cannot be built on because of problems with permitting from the Department of the Interior. Similarly, the island’s school and medical clinic had been destroyed by two hurricanes as well and now housed temporary trailers that served as interim solutions.
These proved to be serious matters because of the logistics involved. For schooling, for example, students are only educated on the island up to the seventh grade. After that, students have to travel by ferry (it is at least 30 minutes each way) to St. Thomas to and from every day for those in the eighth grade and high school. Similarly, the medical center cannot handle anything remotely serious, having to send people either by water taxi to St. Thomas, again, or via helicopter airlift to Miami (!). Miami, it should be noted, is close to three hours away by jet plane from St. Thomas, and one wonders the staggering cost of airlifting someone that distance by helicopter to the mainland, or how many people it would take in so doing to pay for a new and more robust medical clinic for the island.
Related to, and perhaps causal to, these problems is the state of politics on the island. When I queried the taxi driver about whether there was municipal government in the Virgin Islands, he seemed surprised that I would even think that would be the case. The islands are having a campaign right now for voting for various non-voting representatives in the House of Representatives as well as various senators, for what it is hard to see, but there are no mayors, no people elected to govern islands or smaller districts, and this is troubling. Moreover, it appears that there is little ability for the people of St. John to have their voice reach the faraway government offices in Washington DC when it comes to making their health and education a priority. If Kenny Chesney has a problem with permitting, it is likely that he would be able to bend the ear of someone, at least. But the people who live on the islands and have to deal with the lack of public infrastructure on the islands are not as fortunate. One wonders what could be done to improve such difficulties.