Hurricane Irma

Recovering from Hurricane Irma in the U.S. Virgin Islands: A Salvation Army Officer’s Experience on the Front Lines

File Oct 11, 5 44 22 PM~Captain Ted Tressler, The Salvation Army of Reading

As hurricane Irma formed and grew in the southern Atlantic, discussions began regarding how The Salvation Army would respond, given the potential storm path, the anticipated impact and the potential needs to be met.  It was determined on Labor Day that two teams of two responders would be pre-positioned in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  One team would go to St. Thomas and one would go to St. Croix, locations covered by The Salvation Army USA Eastern Territory that were most likely to be affected.

I was selected as a team member because of my extensive experience in serving the victims of natural disasters, my administrative and logistics expertise, as well as my professional training in pastoral, emotional and spiritual care. I was assigned to St. Croix.  Upon arrival we immediately made an assessment of local resources and potential needs.  We prepared by purchasing enough food, supplies and water to meet the needs of 200 individuals for 4 days, at which time additional local resources or outside resources should be available. 

The storm ultimately traveled north of St. Croix, devastating the islands of St. John and St. Thomas. We were able to travel to the islands to help the other team within a couple days (via military helicopter).

File Oct 11, 5 43 59 PM
Captain Ted Tressler (2nd from Left) with The Salvation Army in USVI

We served the storm victims in St. Thomas and St. John by creating a logistics supply chain, locating local resources for food preparation and assessing further needs beyond food, water, clothing and emotional care. I also continued to work as best I could (with very limited communication available) to keep up with the normal demands of leading the services to our home community of Reading.  My wife, Captain Sharon Tressler, added most of my daily responsibilities to her own already overloaded daily responsibilities, but still found a way to do what needed to be done, working day and night to keep up.

In the town of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas, we immediately began a partnership with another ministry and began serving over 200 meals per day.  Within a few days the need grew and we were serving more than 500 meals per day and were then asked by the American Red Cross to begin providing meals in one of the Department of Health shelters at around 200 meals per day.  We then learned that there was a remote community in the rural section of the island that was receiving no food or water, nearly two weeks after the storm.  We immediately arranged to deliver nearly 200 meals daily, cases of water, storm clean-up kits, recovery kits and personal care kits daily by truck.

File Oct 11, 5 44 12 PMSt. John experienced severe devastation and it is likely to take more than a year just to restore power to the entire island. While performing a needs assessment there we discovered that the hospital and pharmacies had exhausted their entire supply of many life-saving drugs (insulin, high blood pressure medication, heart medication, and psychotropic meds for mental illness).  We also learned that even when drugs were available, because of the lack of electronic communication ability, transactions were on a cash-only basis.  Most people remaining on the island possessed no cash.  We began coordinating the delivery of the most needed medications directly to health care providers and one pharmacist.  We also began a medication voucher system through which patients would receive their medication even if they could not purchase it.

On St. John I met a middle-aged woman named Charlene.  Charlene and her husband owned a home on the beach before the storm.  They are now homeless.  I sat and listened to their story in a cabana near the beach; it is where she, her husband, the owner of the cabana and about a dozen other staff and friends spent their days and slept at night, I learned from them about the real needs of the storm victims.  Yes, food, water and shelter were needed (along with shoes….people on St. John usually only wear flip-flops, if anything at all), but the deep and painful need that was expressed was for someone to care.  These people needed someone to listen…to really hear them, and not offer empty platitudes or shallow promises.  They needed someone who cared enough to sit, spend a few minutes, hear the cries of their hearts and empathize.  They needed time.  They needed to “process” what had happened to them.  They needed to know that someone…ANYONE…cared about them.  They needed to know that they were not abandoned and forgotten.  They needed hope.  They needed to know that there is still a God who loves them and who will never leave them, even in the midst of a storm the size of hurricane Irma.

We offered food.  We offered water…and SHOES!  That was good, but more than anything else, sitting, listening, hearing, caring and praying with these lovely people is what they really needed.  They needed HOPE!  They needed to be LOVED!

As The Salvation Army, that’s what we do.  We HEAR, CARE, LOVE and offer the HOPE that can only be found in Christ.

This is exactly what The Salvation Army does EVERY day in Reading, Scranton, Philadelphia and many, many other places every day.  We do this because even if the disaster is a broken home, a lost job, a terrible illness or any number of other “disasters” that strike our friends and neighbors every day – even though the disaster may strike just one family, it’s still a devastating, life altering disaster in that family.  So, in a way, The Salvation Army engages in emergency and disaster services EVERY day, wherever God leads us to serve.

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