Report: Delay in FEMA Process Added Stress to Irmaria Recovery

Damaged homes on St Croix after Hurricane Irma. )File photo)
Damaged homes on St Croix after Hurricane Irma. The slow pace of the FEMA process lent stress to the recovery. (Source file photo)

Three Virgin Islands mental health professionals have published an article analyzing how the Category 5 hurricanes of 2017 affected the mental health of many of the territory residents and about how this recovery effort was different from that of 1989’s recovery from Hurricane Hugo.

The article by Lizette Llanos with co-authors Keila Medina and Lindsy Wagner, all of Island Therapy Solutions, was published in a journal on disaster behavioral health produced by an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In it the authors write, “Those who were on island during Hurricane Hugo, a Category 4 storm that hit the territory in September of 1989, were retraumatized. When we speak to these individuals, they indicate that there are major differences in post-hurricane recovery efforts.”

The authors report a couple of those differences.

“In 1989,” they write, “the federal agencies provided financial resources to families almost immediately after the storms.”

According to their interviews, “The FEMA process is now lengthier and more difficult; people have experienced delays in receiving needed funds, which has created high levels of stress.”

One reason they point to has been a topic at senate hearings. They say many families had a problem because the sole owner of their home was off the island or deceased.

“Families were required to obtain death certificates or notarized letters from the owner to receive funding. With limited communication and government services, obtaining these documents was difficult.”

Another difference was simply the nature of the 2017 back-to-back hurricanes.

They note “After Hurricane Irma, the people of St. Croix donated thousands of items to the sister islands. The residents of St. Croix took supplies to St. John and St. Thomas for the entire 10 days following Hurricane Irma. This left the island of St. Croix unprepared for Hurricane Maria, as they were without many vital supplies including canned goods, gas, water, plywood, tarps, and generators. The people of St. Croix were short on supplies when Hurricane Maria became a threat, causing panic and chaos. Many areas on the east end of the island had little damage and recovered quickly; however, many areas on the west end were devastated.”

One issue the writers bring up that has little public discussion is of racial tension.
“Racial tension developed as it appeared the more affluent, Caucasian residents of the east end were served more quickly than local black residents of the west end,” they wrote.

The writers called the racial divisions “a silent division” and noted that it was not completely ignored. Gov. Kenneth Mapp mentioned it during one of his press conferences and reminded people that all of the islands were affected by the hurricanes.

The article appeared in a quarterly technical assistance journal called Dialogue. The journal focuses on disaster behavioral health and is produced by the SAMHSA Disaster Technical Assistance Center. SAMHSA stands for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Llanos is the academic tutoring supervisor and outreach coordinator for Island Therapy Solutions, a practice providing mental health services. The services include individual therapy, group therapy, couples’ therapy, and evaluations.

The article highlighted the Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program initiated in November 2017. Crisis counselors provided essential emotional support on all islands.

“Crisis counselors of St. Croix facilitated individual crisis counseling to over 3,700 residents; provided public education and group counseling to over 2,700 residents; and had brief educational and supportive contact with over 8,000 residents, many of whom were referred by other programs assisting with recovery such as the Women’s Coalition, the Village, and Islands Therapy,” they wrote in the article.

Island Therapy Solutions has provided free counseling services to 242 people through additional supplemental funding.

“Individuals had approximately 1,595 total visits from October 2018 through July 2019. Their diagnoses include PTSD, adjustment disorders, and anxiety disorders; we have seen an increase in cannabis use disorder and alcohol use disorder.”

The article concludes, “Island Therapy on St. Croix and Beautiful Dreamers on St. Thomas and St. John are working to help the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands be psychologically ready for another hurricane season.”

Island Therapy opened in 2009 on St. Croix and began offering services there and on St. Thomas that year. It has no direct affiliation with the territory government but does occasionally do contract work for the local government.