A researcher at the University of the Virgin Islands said the school’s environmental research lab on St. John fared well through the passage of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. But other structures that make up the 51-year old research station and environmental education facility did not do as well.
As a result, the future of the Virgin Islands Environmental Resource Station may change in the months to come.
Dr. Paul Jobsis is acting director of UVI’s Center for Marine and Environmental Studies. He visited VIERS a few weeks after the two Category 5 hurricanes left their marks on St. John’s south shore.
Jobsis, accompanied by other researchers, said he arrived on site on different occasions, by sea and by traveling over a steep, ungraded road branching off the end of Route 107. VIERS is located in the remote and picturesque Lameshur Bay. The site is partially maintained by the National Park Service and by the non-profit group, Clean Islands International.
What they met was a tangle of fallen trees, smashed structures and cabins that had been knocked off their foundations, said Kim Waddell, who also made the trip. Waddell is director of the Virgin Islands Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (VI-ESPCoR.)
The marine science center director said getting to VIERS immediately after the storms was physically demanding. The gravel road leading to Lameshur could only be traversed with vehicles equipped with four-wheel drive.
“Right after the two hurricanes, it was devastating. Trees were down, but incredibly few of them fell on important buildings. The little bathrooms got hit. One of the weather sheds was smashed,” Jobsis said.
The VIERS research lab, he said, appeared untouched. The historic undersea research station, named after a 1968 undersea exploration, suffered minor damage.
Irma and Maria struck just as the territory’s public and private schools began the fall semester. A few weeks earlier, VIERS was hosting summer camps promoting environmental awareness.
Registration information for the 2017 summer eco-camps still appears on the Clean Islands International website, www.islands.org. Youth from different age groups formed environmental awareness camps and science exploration camps.
Educational offerings also include visits to the Tektite Museum, where teams of researchers conducted lengthy studies of coral reefs while living underwater in tanks. Project Tektite was sponsored by the U.S. Navy, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Interior Department and General Electric.
In 2014 UVI hosted a 45th reunion of the Tektite explorers, who were also called aquanauts. Among their more mundane tasks while at Lameshur, the team built the cabins that have accommodated visiting researchers and youth summer camps through the years.
Jobsis praised Clean Islands for maintaining the site through the years and playing hosts to those who came to learn more about the ecosystems that thrive in the area. But, he said, it appears the group does not have the immediate resources to restore the area.
Attempts to reach Clean Islands board member and executive director Tricia Hopkins for comment were unsuccessful as of Sunday. Hopkins is the widow of longtime VIERS site manager Randy Brown.
The organization’s website states the group depends on contributions.
Talks have begun over possible directions for VIERS. Jobsis said he’d like to see the university optimize the value of the research station and do more to attract visiting scientists.
“We’ve applied for some federal funding to increase the research capabilities of the labs, so we’re hopeful that we might get funded in July. That would be to develop a more research-based clientele for that area,” he said. “We need to take advantage of the fact that there’s a research station there.”
A brief history of the St. John research station appearing on the Clean Islands website says VIERS was established in 1966 to promote environmental education. A study published by the University of Arizona in 2006 suggests that universities with research components do just that.
But the study, written by economics professor Dr. Kent Hill, says students that stand to benefit the most are graduate students working as a research assistant. Some of whom may remain the area after graduation to advance technology or set up researched based enterprises.