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A Virgin Islands National Park Struggles To Recover From Hurricanes


As the Atlantic hurricane season gets underway, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, people are still mostly thinking about the last one. Two powerful storms, Irma and Maria, hit the islands last year, causing massive destruction. Nine months after those storms, the national park on St. John needs to rebuild beach facilities. NPR's Greg Allen reports that volunteers are doing much of the work.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Francis Bay is a popular beach on St. John with picnic facilities and a handicap-accessible boardwalk through the mangroves. Joe Kessler says it was hit hard by the storm surge from Hurricane Irma.

JOE KESSLER: You can see on that tree back there how high the...

ALLEN: Right, how high the debris is - 10 feet, 12 feet maybe.

KESSLER: All this boardwalk was up on top there.

ALLEN: The National Hurricane Center isn't sure how high the storm surge was in the Virgin Islands because a key gauge stopped working. But here at Francis Bay, Kessler says the water toppled trees, washed away much of the beach and destroyed the boardwalk.

KESSLER: The sections were tossed everywhere. It looked like a roller coaster. Things were topsy-turvy. It was beyond impassable.

ALLEN: Kessler is president of the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park. The group works with a staff to preserve and protect the beaches trails and coral reefs of one of the nation's most beautiful parks. In the months since the storm, Kessler's group has been busy clearing down trees, replacing picnic benches and pavilions and rebuilding the boardwalk at Francis Bay. Much of the work was done by volunteers.

KESSLER: We had one group - came from Portland, Maine. Several of them were good carpenters. A couple of them were master carpenters. And they helped us wrap this all up.

ALLEN: The national park on St. John covers most of the island and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. Since last year's storms, the number of visitors is down because the island's largest hotels remain closed. The park's beaches and trails are all open but not as they were. On Leinster Bay, before the storm, Kessler says the trail we're walking on was essentially a road, popular with hikers, dog walkers and runners.

KESSLER: Now we're down to a kind of a winding path where you can see all the trees that have been knocked over, those that have been cut out of the way so that we do have a path.

ALLEN: The path jogs around obstacles, including a 40-foot sailboat marooned on the beach since the storm. Boats damaged in the hurricanes, many since abandoned, have been a major headache for the park. After months of negotiations, the Park Service reached an agreement with the Navy to begin removing dozens of sunken vessels from park waters. Further along the trail, we come upon a group of volunteers clearing brush around the remains of an old, abandoned sugar plantation.

ASHLEY WAGNER: We're just clearing out debris from around the ruins here, sniffing out some of the invasive things that had taken over, I think, before anyway.

KESSLER: Ashley Wagner is from Connecticut, taking time out from a vacation with her family to help restore the park. She's a regular visitor. This is her first time back on St. John since the hurricanes. She was surprised how good the island looks.

WAGNER: I have seen a lot of turtles over at Maho. So it seems like life is coming back. With little, green sprouts coming up everywhere, even where all the mangroves are just totally dead and decimated, you're seeing the little, green shoots of life. Like, the plants are trying.

ALLEN: Nearby, Tracy Slaktowicz was chopping weeds. He came to St. John from his home in Denver to help a friend rebuild. He took a day off from that to work here.

TRACY SLAKTOWICZ: And it's cool. The spirit and the vibe on St. John's right now is everybody's kind of just pitching in and making it happen.

ALLEN: There's still lots of work to do in the national park. The main campground and some other visitor services remain closed. Some park employees still haven't returned because their housing was damaged. But like the rest of the Virgin Islands, the national park is slowly coming back. Greg Allen, NPR News, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands.


As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.