Players travel home to U.S. Virgin Islands to help with hurricane recovery

Jharel Cotton traveled home to St. Thomas to see family, survey the damage and try to help with the recovery efforts. Courtesy of Jharel Cotton

Halloween was a big night in the U.S. Virgin Islands, as the territory's government was finally able to lift its evening curfew five weeks after the islands were devastated by two Category 5 hurricanes, Irma and then Maria, which battered the islands with high winds and substantial rainfall. A lack of electricity across the islands, combined with debris in the roads, made driving after dark too dangerous, which led the government to impose a curfew that as recently as last week was still 7 p.m. local time.

The Virgin Islands aren't a baseball hotbed like their neighbor to the west in Puerto Rico, but St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix have produced a few major leaguers and prospects over the past few years, with three Virgin Islanders playing in the majors in 2017: Jharel Cotton, Jabari Blash and Akeel Morris, all born on St. Thomas. Blash and Morris both attended Charlotte Amalie High School, while Cotton graduated from high school in Virginia. Both Cotton and Blash returned to St. Thomas in October to see family, survey the damage and try to help the recovery efforts, although they said they couldn't connect while they were both on the island because of the lack of mobile phone service.

Though he was born on St. Thomas, Cotton spent 12 years on Tortola, one of the nearby British Virgin Islands, before returning to the U.S. side for four years, after which he came to the mainland to finish high school and advance his baseball career. He still has family on both islands and returned to St. Thomas the week of Oct. 17th. (He couldn't get to Tortola because the damage to that island's port has limited boat service.)

"I expected a lot of debris, a lot of trees down, a lot of roofs gone. I didn't expect telephone poles in the roads," said Cotton after he returned. "The roads have a lot of potholes. The biggest thing is that the stoplights don't work, so you've got to drive carefully. There's a bunch of traffic, and it's a nightmare.

"There's some cell service, but it's limited. There's little power or internet. The beaches aren't clean because of the debris. The airport is mostly unusable and has only two or three gates open. Everything is badly beaten up -- even the biggest resorts are shut down. My sister, she had several different jobs, and now she doesn't have one due to damage to all her workplaces."

While conditions are improving, the islands' economy has been shattered by the storms. The territory depends heavily on tourism, which generates half of its GDP, but most resorts are closed for this entire season, with several properties suffering enough damage that they expect to remain shuttered until 2019. Some schools have reopened, but many remain closed due to physical damage. Rep. Stacey Plaskett, the nonvoting congressperson from the Virgin Islands, testified this week before the House Transportation Committee about the need for funds to mitigate these losses, as the most recent disaster recovery bill omitted funds to help the Virgin Islands repair their airports, seaports and infrastructure to deliver clean water to residents.

Electricity and cell service are coming back online, but very slowly, according to a representative I spoke with in the office of Rep. Plaskett. "Most of all three islands were down. The two hospitals were both damaged, so doctors are working out of temporary, military hospitals in tents."

Cotton spent much of his time on the island working to try to help distribute meals to people. He worked with the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, which serves as a fiscal agent for donors and organizations trying to bring relief to the territory, through a workshop for at-risk youth. "The biggest things they need are food and water," he said. "They come for four, five, six meals at a time," because there's so little electricity outside of the capital, Charlotte Amalie. The group set up stations to prepare and serve hot meals to the community on St. Thomas; there are grocery stores open, but there's no way for residents to store fresh food.

Blash went to Bordeaux, on the western side of St. Thomas, when he visited the island in October.

"My sister lives in the countryside, which is higher up, and her entire house is gone," he said. "It's her and her four kids, everything is gone now."

Both players emphasized that while the islands need more help, they're very grateful for the aid that has already arrived.

"I just want to say thank you the hundreds of thousands of people that sent packages," Blash said. "So many packages with letters, with drawings ... I would like to say thank you to everyone that was able to give back. Some of the packages were simple -- just bathroom items -- but it was all so thoughtful."

Blash and Cotton also cited the work done by St. Croix native Tim Duncan, whose 21 U.S. Virgin Islands Relief has raised over $2.7 million for hurricane relief for the territory.

As for future baseball prospects out of the Virgin Islands, it's going to be tough for scouts to see them play because the local fields are damaged, too.

"There's not going to be any baseball for a little bit of time," Cotton said. "There's Elrod Hendricks ballpark, by the boat terminal to go to Tortola, that field was badly torn up -- the bleachers were caved in. Near Frenchman's Bay, that field had a couple of boats on the field from the hurricane."

You read that correctly: The winds from the storms blew boats from the water on to a nearby baseball diamond. This is going to be a multiyear recovery, and that's assuming the islands don't sustain further damage from storms -- with so many trees down from the islands' hills, they're now at risk of flooding and mudslides -- while they're rebuilding.

Cotton and Blash saw it firsthand, and they fear the territory will be forgotten because it's so small and separate from the mainland U.S. The islands still need help, whether it's funds, canned goods or other basic resources for people who've lost their homes and their jobs or are simply without power and water after the storms.