Hurricanes don’t often occur in Arizona, and even the most severe monsoon storm can’t compare to the devastation that winds of 185 miles per hour will cause.
Last September hurricane Irma left a broad path of destruction throughout the Caribbean, and that damage and suffering was further exacerbated in many parts of the region when hurricane Maria struck just two weeks later.
The damage caused by the hurricanes left many islands without drinkable water, food, shelter, electricity, and emergency services.
The essential work of rebuilding, cleaning up and restoring services, jobs and normality moved slowly, due largely in part by an inefficient and clumsy response from the Trump white house.
When word arrived that the islands needed volunteers to help with rebuilding and restoration efforts the entire Glen Canyon National Recreation Area dive team, based out of Wahweap, signed up to help.
Three Divers, Erik Stanfield, Nicholas Crowley, and Taylor Western traveled to St. John where they spent two weeks helping the National Park Service repair damage from the recent hurricanes.
“They needed more dive teams and it just so happens that Glen Canyon has the most specialized and/or most active dive team in the country built up by Pat Horning.” Stanfield said.
Two months after the hurricanes, the tourist season had already begun on the islands with no means to accommodate the tourists’ boat traffic. The Glen Canyon Dive Team was given the job of cleaning debris blown into the bays so that boat traffic could return.
The dive team found roofs, mangled and overturned boats, furniture and other items cluttering the coastal shores as well as underwater.
“I went down into the water with a biologist when I got there,” said Stanfield. “I didn’t observe any underwater damage to the [ocean floor] just to resources used by the tourists. I could imagine what it must’ve looked like weeks before we got there. ”
Their assignment also included recovering, inspecting and repairing 400 buoys, which is critical to maneuvering boat traffic and visitors to the islands.
“Their economy is entirely [reliant upon] tourism,” said Stanfield. “There is no agricultural or industry. Opening stores and restaurants wasn’t top priority, but making sure the park is open helps facilitate the economy.”
Each buoy is rented for $26 per night by anyone visiting the island who needs a place to tie their boat for the duration of their stay. The buoys couldn’t be rented out until the park service cleared them for use.
Two weeks after their recovery efforts had begun the team was told that ten percent of the buoys were ready to use, which led to an instant ten percent increase in tourist traffic and a noticeable upswing in the economy as the tourist began to return.
Living in Page that is itself heavily reliant upon tourism, the dive team from Wahweap could relate to the impact tourism has on the local economy. They knew recovering even a small portion of the water traffic back to the bays was critical to helping the people.
The Page team also did a lot of work on the St. John NPS employee housing and tourist sites as they found there was almost nothing left to salvage.
Once a hurricane or storm rips the roof off and water gets into the structure the building is a loss, said Mary Plumb, Public Relations Officer for the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
The journey to St Johns involved a plane ride, then a ferry to the island because of the amount of debris still strewn on the ground. The ground vegetation was brown and flattened by the wind and the color of the water had little of the famous blue beaches seen in pictures. They found large piles of garbage, and submerged or destroyed vessels. The only businesses open were small grocery stores that had survived. Evacuation left the streets almost barren.
Each member of the dive team notes the blue tarps were the first impressionable sight outside of the park. The blue tarps are highly valued as they are specially made to withstand the elements. In this case, they provided shelter after the first hurricane and some were still salvageable when the second hurricane ripped through the island. The blue tarps were on almost every housing structure that was still standing.
The next sight witnessed by the team was the amount of ‘boom trucks’ designated to restore electricity to the island. After shelter, food and clean water, the island’s next priority focused on returning electrical power to the residents. The team stresses the need to restore electricity was critical to rebuilding housing.
Even though he was aware that large amounts of damage had occurred to the island, Crowley still wasn’t ready for the first impression the island gave him.
“It was a little bit unexpected to see the damage and shocking to see the conditions almost three months after the hurricanes.,” said Crowley. “Power lines down, debris still washed unto the roads. Seemed like the local population was still running the smaller shops outside of the park, like there wasn’t much progress there. But our role was just for the park. We don’t know what was going on with the politics, we were just there for the park.”
With each dive team working twelve-hour days for two weeks, there was little time to visit with the people living on the island.
They took pride that they were able to make a large, positive impact using their special set of dive skills.
“It was cool to be able to help get the island and its people back on their feet,” said Crowley.
“It was sad to see how much destruction the hurricanes actually did to the place.” Western recalls, “It was also nice to see how they were moving forward and how the local people helped each other out. The shop owners would hire local people to clean up the yards and repair some of the buildings. It was a cool experience to see how the whole island would come together and help each other, as well.”