One of the benefits of working for the National Park Service is getting to live in some of the most beautiful spots on the planet, including the Virgin Islands. Most homes provided for Park Service employees on St. John are located along shorelines or on ridgetops, and offer stunning views.
However, when Hurricane Irma hit on September 6, the downside of these locations became apparent. Much of the employee housing within Virgin Island National Park (VINP) was severely damaged by either storm surge or high winds.
Within a matter of a few days, park rangers, resource managers, and even the deputy superintendent – the highest-ranking official in the VINP – received notice of mandatory evacuation and reassignment to other parks. Most had no place to live anymore, and with the Virgin Island National Park officially “closed,” many no longer had jobs to report to.
Some regular maintenance and administrative employees remained on the job, as did three law enforcement rangers, including Chief Ranger Rick Gupman who was named acting deputy superintendent.
In general, however, familiar faces disappeared, and in their place, a series of seasoned federal employees from numerous federal agencies arrived. Certified in disaster response, they came to do specific tasks for up to three weeks, and then left.
In September, law enforcement officers from the Forestry Service appeared on the scene wearing camouflage and carrying big guns. In early November, a team of Spanish-speaking firefighters from Texas and Mexico known as Los Diablos Hotshots came to clear trails and beaches.
Immediately after the storm, the first person to take charge of the park on St. John wore the blue uniform of the US Public Health Service instead of the Park Service’s gray and green. Kevin Killian, whose “day job” is chief ranger of Yosemite National Park, is now the current Incident Commander.
The turnover of personnel is part of an Incident Command process that is typically set in motion following a natural disaster, according to Murray Shoemaker, who now serves as the public information officer for the Incident Command.
The Visitors Center in Cruz Bay, where tourists used to mill about buying souvenirs and perusing displays, has been taken over as the Incident Command Center.
The large room is now crammed full of tables with signs listing each workstation’s primary purpose: finance, archaeology, logistics, operations, safety, planning. The busy workers who tap on computer keyboards and consult files have arrived from all over the country with expertise in emergency response, stabilization, and assessment.
The Incident Command process is “very robust,” according to Darrell Echols, who arrived on St. John November 5 to serve as acting superintendent of the VINP.
Echols’ appointment was taken as good news by community members who were concerned about the relocation stateside of veteran park employees. Although they saw that the Incident Command was clearly making progress, they worried that local knowledge was being overlooked and continuity was being lost. They felt that assessing and repairing facilities was being prioritized over monitoring and mitigating damage to forests and coral reefs.
The fact that Echols started out his career with the Park Service as a marine biologist studying turtles and seagrass was reassuring to those who expressed these concerns.
Raised on the South Texas Coast, he earned a degree in marine biology and moved up through the ranks of the NPS, working in resource management and administration in parks in Texas and North Carolina. He now works in Atlanta as the chief of science and natural resource management for the Southeast Region, but he’ll be serving as acting superintendent of the VINP for up to 120 days, he said.
Echols said his appointment came about because Randy Levasseur, the recently appointed Caribbean Parks Superintendent, felt it was necessary.
“The complexity [of the overall situation] needs someone on site to be the agency administrator to make the work flow and identify objectives and priorities,” said Echols.
Immediately after the storm, clearing roads, removing debris, and taking inventory of what remained of park facilities became priorities, Echols said. Damage assessment of property is a necessary step in developing a strategic plan, but knowing how the marine and terrestrial life has fared is also essential.
“Part of assessing post-storm is bringing in resource advisors – cultural and natural – to identify needs and package projects for long-term funding,” Echols said. He cited as an example Jeff Miller, a biologist based on St. John who has joined a team that is circumnavigating the island by boat to determine the effects of the storm.
Echols’ job is to manage expectations. “We can’t pull out a bag of money and say, ‘Let’s fix everything,’” he said. “We still have a lot of needs. In some cases, it may take an extended period of time; [the park] may not go back to the way it was.”
The damage in the VINP is only a fraction of the destruction caused by recent natural disasters elsewhere in the Caribbean, Texas, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, and California.
Of the 70 national parks, monuments, beaches and historic sites under the supervision of the Southeast Region, at least 18 were affected by the hurricanes in August and September, Echols said. The extent of the damage and the cost of the repairs are still being assessed.
Ultimately, it’s up to the U.S. Congress to appropriate funding, and the tab is still mounting. Within the Department of the Interior, the competition for those disaster-relief dollars is intense. The National Park Service, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the U.S. Geological Survey are all looking to get their share.
In the Virgin Islands, the Park Service is trying to estimate the cost of removing boats sunk and abandoned in park waters. They’re also trying to determine the costs of reconstruction of seagrass beds. Add all that to the costs of NPS property damaged by the storms, including roads, buildings, vehicles, computers and maintenance equipment, and “It’s a big ask,” Echols said.
Although the Park Service said the VINP was officially closed after Hurricane Irma, there was really no way to prevent the public from enjoying the park once the roads were cleared starting in early October. Locals have been going to beaches and bushwhacking their way along trails, knowing that they were doing so at their own risk.
On November 13, the Park Service announced that Honeymoon Beach and Hawksnest Beach are now officially open. A recent video promoting the facilities at Honeymoon boasted of running water and toilets that flush. It may not seem like such a big deal to the tourists who are starting to arrive, but to locals, the restoration of these amenities is huge.
Darrell Echols agrees. “It’s been wonderful to see how park staff and those who responded to help have come together to get the Virgin Islands National Park back in operation. We have a long way to go, but today we can celebrate a significant achievement towards that goal.”
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