CHARLOTTE AMALIE, Virgin Islands — The U.S. Virgin Islands no longer has the air of paradise.
From above, the islands resemble conflict zones. The grassy hillsides are now brown. Leafless tree trunks jut out like burned toothpicks. Sailboats are stranded on the rocky coasts.
On the ground, it is worse.
The Red Hook harbor in St. Thomas was desolate on a recent visit after Hurricane Irma except for a few stragglers trying to evacuate. Newly homeless residents in Tutu Valley idled in 90-degree heat outside their ravaged homes. On St. John, which was hit the hardest of the three islands that make up this U.S. territory, supply helicopters buzzed over the once-powdery beaches where vacationers had soaked up the sun.
Outside what was left of a housing project on St. Thomas, a young man opened the doors of his white van and played jazz music, the notes echoing in the now-exposed apartments. Nearby, the wall behind Ureen Smith Fahie’s gray couch had been blasted away. A cool breeze blew over the rubble inside her apartment.
I asked what she would have for dinner. She did not give much of an answer.
Cars congested the winding roads, with fallen utility poles visible across the landscape. When the curfew lifts, residents head to food pantries and supermarkets before they open to beat the hours-long line for water, ready-to-eat meals and tarps to cover roofs.
Ice was the most sought-after commodity, to quench children’s thirst and to preserve perishable foods.
Amid desperation and isolation, residents showed resilience.
Some neighbors gathered around a grill outside a building in Tutu. They shared what food they had salvaged.
“I see a light at the end of the tunnel,” said St. Clair Desilivia, 58, who was gathered there. “We’ve got to stick together.”
Many people had lost track of the days since the hurricane. With few connections to the rest of the world, they listened attentively to the radio for news. One station, WSTA 1340, had broadcast through the hurricane, even if it was to play soothing music at times.
Residents found pockets of cellphone reception on top of hills or in the elevated parking lot of a ravaged supermarket. The spots drew small groups who huddled together to try to communicate with family abroad.
Or to arrange to flee the island.
Marsha Maynes, a real estate agent who had been in the Virgin Islands for 37 years, was making phone calls, trying to find a way to Puerto Rico.
“I’m not going to be selling much real estate now,” she said.
In the cruise ship port of Charlotte Amalie, the capital, a restaurant ran on generators. Stranded tourists and expats ate a warm meal.
The damage of Hurricane Hugo in 1989 had been bad, but not extensive, residents said. Hurricane Marilyn in 1995 was devastating, leaving more than 11,000 people homeless in St. Thomas.
Then came Irma, a storm the Virgin Islands will never forget.