St. John Ice Powers Through Storm into Uncertainty

View from the Boulon Center to Sprauve School on Sept. 9.

CRUZ BAY — Not too far from the Cruz Bay traffic circle the evidence of Hurricane Irma’s impact languished in the sun. The roof of Sprauve School’s Clarice Thomas Annex lay upside down in the road like a discarded hat.

Dozens of residents scaled the balcony at Boulon Center and hung over the rails in search of a signal. Emergency responders landed helicopters on the field at the Winston Wells Ballpark, five hundred feet away.

It was time for St. John to get back on its feet.

Around the corner from Boulon Center, a mustached man in a white tee shirt and khaki shorts bustled around in the parking lot of the Lumberyard Commercial Center, wheeling machine parts on a hand truck. St. John Ice and its owner, Alan Johnson, carried on, rebuilding the devices for water and ice production.

With disaster relief rolling just rolling into place two days after Irma, the people of St. John were hot and thirsty. Hot enough to stand in long queues for hours at the ice house door, hoping the machines would work that day. One of the six production workers still on the job would come to the door with the daily forecast.

Ice by four, they’d say — some days. Those who joined the line by closing time at six were asked to come back tomorrow. Sometimes by the ice house crew. Sometimes by the cops enforcing curfew.

By then the availability of ice was a hot topic on talk radio and was more than a necessity for those depending on insulin to manage diabetes.

In one of his daily briefings, Gov. Kenneth Mapp said a cold drink was as good as money.

That was then. Now, three months later, Cruz Bay and its businesses have seen some recovery. Distribution of emergency food and water have come and gone. Public power is back and the refrigerated trailers of ice shipped in by a local supermarket have vanished.

But getting back to business has tossed another wrench in the St. John Ice machinery. According to an unconfirmed source, the Lumberyard’s new landlord issued short notice for them and other tenants to leave the premises. Pressure to move appeared to mount when Johnson said he was told the Water and Power Authority was instructed not to reconnect his business.

The ice house owner said so at an emergency operations meeting held at the National Park Visitor’s Center on Nov. 22. “I’m not going to get electricity reconnected. Once my generator dies, I’m done,” he said.

Some of the residents and business owners in the crowd said the work of the ice house must go on. “They have pretty much been a lifeline for our whole community,” said Connections owner Cyd Hamling.

Meagan Enright, community relations coordinator for the non-profit Love for Love City Foundation began making calls to find out more. At a time when others were playing nicely together, she said, it appeared the new landlord at St. John Lumberyard was making an aggressive move.

Enright said her group would try to sort the situation out, but two weeks later the coordinator had little to say.

Those who’ve had their hands on emergency operations since Irma passed on Sept. 6 said the same. “I talked with her this morning. She said she’s working on it,” said Irving Mason, local coordinator for the VI Territorial Emergency Management Agency.

The local representative for the new landlord was likewise mum. Derek Gabriel, property manager for Legacy Development, said he would have to check with higher-ups before making a comment. Gabriel was asked if the landlord instructed the utility company not to reconnect its remaining tenant at the Lumberyard.

That question remained unanswered at press time.

With the generator still humming away, St. John Ice still opens its doors from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. By 6:30 a.m. on a weekday morning in December, the daily routine begins. Pick up trucks pull up to the ice house doors in swift succession. Workers walk in and walk out with bags of ice in block or cubes.

Containers filled with ice cubes are set under faucets to fill with drinking water.

Delivery man Clyde Vanterpool stacked bags of cubes into a pickup truck and covered them with a tarp for delivery. The big truck used by the ice house was damaged in the storm, leaving one, smaller vehicle to cover the route.

Since Irma passed, he said, St. John Ice has done its best to provide the community’s needs. A need that presents itself at dawn when construction and recovery crews show up to fill up.

Deliveries of water and ice to groceries and restaurants resumed one week after Irma, he said. More stops are added to the route as more businesses reopened. Love City Superette eight miles away in Coral Bay is taking as much ice as can be supplied, Vanterpool said.

When the big trailers of ice run out for Dolphin Market, next door in Boulon Center, deliveries would probably pick up there as well.

Demands for water, ice, and filters for home water systems is a brisk as ever, the delivery man said. St. John Ice works daily to meet that demand.

“We only have certain equipment to work with, not really new equipment. What got damaged, we really haven’t had time to replace. We try to go day by day and do what we can. It would be better if we had WAPA,” Vanterpool said.

Johnson told emergency managers he could not move his business on such short notice and needed to speak with the landlord. But by early December that conversation had yet to take place.