Island residents band together for hurricane relief effort

WASHINGTON — As the U.S. Virgin Islands continue to grapple with a destructive hurricane season this year, four friends who were on vacation stateside when Irma hit have created a relief fund.

The Virgin Islands Relief Fund is said to have collected nearly 200,000 pounds of supplies to help island residents. Efforts that started from a Philadelphia airport now include distribution centers in Puerto Rico and St. Croix, which will receive items shipped by ocean freighters out of Pompano Beach, Florida.

Ben Steed, who helped form the fund, is a charter boat captain from the island of St. John. He’s conducting efforts from Dallas, Texas, where he’s staying with friends.

“We all have crazy networks of different individuals and different strengths,” said Steed, who also has a military background. “So, I know how to get things done in a laid-out fashion.”

Besides collecting supplies, the Virgin Islands Relief Fund assisted with evacuations from St. John as Hurricane Maria promised to bring more damage. Steed said members of the group connected with a person who has access to boats on Puerto Rico and has a house and interests in St. John.

“We set a deal up with him where he would run people from St. John to Puerto Rico to evacuate the island,” Steed said. Contacts in St. Croix also volunteered their vessels.

Steed said the group spontaneously decided to do something to help as soon as Hurricane Irma hit.

“Within 36 hours, we helped put in a search and rescue team on St. John. And we were there before the feds were even there,” Steed said. “So, we’re not really consulting with them at this point. We’re going to take this and run with it.”

He credits the immediacy of social media, such as the fund’s Facebook page, with the group’s success thus far.

But Hurricane Maria looks to add another level of complications.

“We’re kind of controlling chaos because it’s changing by the minute,” Steed said. “We have to react to that and plan for the next phases that are coming up.”

Steed said volunteers in the Virgin Islands will work with local officials to coordinate the distribution of recently donated supplies. But there’s a long-term plan to consider as well.

“The rebuild phase is going to be the next phase,” said Steed. “It’s going to be helping the businesses down there. It’s going to be helping the infrastructure. That’s the next phase for what we’re looking to do.”

Donate to the fund at their YouCaring page.

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