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     Two articles that James A. Petrait wrote shortly after Hurricane Hugo on St. Croix were placed in the U.S. Congressional Record (February 29, 1990, E 440, E 441) by the VI Representative, Hon. Ron de Lugo. The articles begin with comments by Hon. Ron de Lugo. Hurricane Hugo started during the evening of September 17, 1989.

 

ST. CROIX PARISHIONERS AND STUDENTS PROVIDE INSPIRATION AFTER HURRICANE HUGO

HON. RON DE LUGO

of the Virgin Islands

in the House of Representatives

Wednesday, February 28, 1990

 

     Mr. de LUGO. Mr. Speaker, the fury of Hurricane Hugo, whose 200-miles-per-hour winds caused enormous destruction in the U.S. Virgin Islands, also brought out the dedication and strength of many people in our community. Thousands of our people huddled together in darkness to survive the storm, then joined hands to work together to rebuild their homes, businesses, and lives,

     Two such heroic groups are the students and teachers at St. Joseph High School and the parishioners and clergy of St. Ann's Parish at Barrenspot on St. Croix. Whether they were praying together for sheer survival, or working together to rebuild classrooms and the parish center, these students and parishioners have been a model of dedication and community effort. Under the leadership of Bishop Sean O'Malley, they have been an inspiration to the Virgin Islands.

     Brother James Petrait, who chairs the Science Department of St. Joseph High School, has recorded the experience of living through Hurricane Hugo in two moving articles that I want to include in the CONGRESSIONAL RECORD so they will get the national attention they deserve. Bro. James also began a "Seeds for New Life" campaign that is seeking donations of garden tools and seeds, as explained in the article.

     In reading Brother Petrait's articles, I am reminded of two fundamental facts that we, too, easily forget. First, the value of humility. When Mother Nature unleashes her full power, we human beings are just grass in the wind. Our power is nothing compared to that of nature. Second, when destruction is overwhelming, it is most important that we thank God for life. The people of St. Joseph's and St. Ann's, who lost so much in material wealth, have found renewed strength and deep meaning in the simple blessing of life. That is the lesson for us all.

Two articles from the Pilot, the paper of the Boston Archdiocese, and the St. Croix Avis follow here.


(From the Boston Pilot)

THANK GOD FOR LIFE AND FRIENDS

(By Brother James A. Petrait, O.S.F.S.)

     It has been several months since we experienced living through the eye of Hurricane Hugo on St. Croix and the effects of the terrible disaster are still with us. Many still have no homes or have severely damaged dwellings. Much of the island is still without electrical power, phone service, and running water. But we are rebuilding thanks to the generous help of our friends in the States and elsewhere.

     I remember well that September night of devastation when the eye of Hugo and its six tornadoes and winds of over 200 miles per hour near it hovered over the islands a long time and I will never forget the awesome sight of the devastation of over 95 % of the buildings on seeing it in the "morning after". That included the twisted mass of steel which was once St. Ann's Parish Center located where I live and the millions of dollars of damage done to the campus of St. Joseph High School where I teach.

     But I also remember the first words that many of us said to each other after this disaster. "Thank God for life" was both our greeting and our prayer. We may have lost many of our material things but we still had the gift of life from our Creator.

     The first week after Hugo was as bad as the night of the Hurricane. Almost all of the communications on St. Croix were nonexistent and it was very difficult for us to contact the outside world or each other. I recall desperately listening to the "Voice of America" on the short-wave radio for some news about St. Croix and finding out that there was little or none. Then I found out that much of the press in the States was giving the wrong news by sensationalizing the looting, which could have happened anywhere, and not the awesome devastation and human suffering.

     However, many of our friends soon found out and during the second month after Hugo much help started to come in from all of these good people. We are very thankful for that help and we are thankful that we still have life. We of St. Croix still need your material help- at St. Ann's, St. Joseph High School, and all over this largest U.S. Virgin Island. But we also need your prayers to sustain us during the many delays and turned-down insurance claims and other requests for help. In return you can be assured that you will be remembered in all of our prayers from this island of the "Holy Cross".

     In addition to the other help, I am in need of any kind of flower or vegetable seeds and small garden tools for my "Seeds for a New Life" program for my science students. (Note: This was written in 1989 and the requested help is no longer needed.)

 

(From the St. Croix Avis, Nov. 5-6, 1989)

IN THE EYE OF HUGO

(By Brother James A. Petrait, O.S.F.S.)

 

     During one of my science classes at St. Joseph High School on St. Croix on Friday, September 15, 1989, we said a prayer that the coming hurricane named Hugo would pass up by as most do. At least, we hoped that it would only come close enough to give us some more rain water for our cisterns and perhaps to give us a day off from school because of excessive rain.

     By Saturday morning, the reports on radio and TV started becoming more serious. They said that it was a good chance that a Level 4 hurricane would hit St. Croix by Sunday evening. Looking at my hurricane map, I noted that a level 4 hurricane would result in roofs coming from houses and lighter structures blowing away.

     All day Saturday at St. Ann's Parish on Barrenspot Hill, where I live, everyone helped in putting up plywood to cover the picture windows on the rectory and taping all of the other windows. Few seemed to be convinced that this would be a hurricane that would cause much damage but that it was good to be ready for it. On Saturday afternoon, a hurricane warning was issued and the weather was already becoming stormier.

     In the basement of St. Ann's rectory is a cable TV control station for the Catholic Cable Network on St. Croix. As one of the operators of the station, I played some announcements with a special prayer for protection of life from the coming hurricane. In the audio section, I continuously played a tape of a group saying the mysteries of the rosary. I know that the prayers of all who joined in somehow did help to protect most of the human life on St. Croix.

     On Sunday morning, the weather was still not too bad. The 9 AM and 11:30 AM Masses at St. Ann's were held as usual. St. Ann's is noted for being one of the largest and most charismatic Catholic parishes in the Caribbean area. The 9 AM Mass was held in the large Parish Center building. This open-sided structure made of steel beams could hold 1200 people. Many of the seats were filled and the congregation praised and worshipped the Lord in their usual dynamic way.

     On Sunday afternoon, the winds started blowing much stronger. The first floor TV studio and guest room at St. Ann's rectory has a concrete ceiling and is below the main stairs. I know that this would be the safest place to stay during the storm. Around 4 PM in the afternoon, the pastor, Fr. Elliott Thomas became convinced also.

     By Sunday evening, the winds were blowing fast enough that it would have been dangerous to go outside anymore, After 7 PM, the winds really started blowing and the beginnings of around a foot of rain began to come down. Fr. Elliott and I waited, listened to the radio, and prayed several rosaries together. The radio gave a report that we should not worry because the eye of the hurricane would probably miss St. Croix.

     Then we heard loud noises, things were falling all over on top of the concrete ceiling and all around us. There were sounds of heavy objects falling and the sounds of twisting and bouncing pieces of metal. Looking out the window, I could see nothing but an eerie glow with all of the debris from the building and trees looking like a snowstorm in a place that has never seen snow.

     More rosaries were said and all of the local radio stations stopped operating. One of the stations on St. Thomas was still operating and was giving a continuous stream of messages for help. At one point, the government of the Virgin Islands had to use this broadcast station to give instructions to the police chief of St. Croix. No one seemed to know what was really happening on our island. We knew by our experience however that this was a very destructive storm.

     The winds continued to howl with a pitch I never heard before and the loud noises continued into the small hours of Monday morning. Water started dripping through the concrete ceiling and for awhile, I thought some of the concrete walls would be blown over.

     Then around 2 AM, everything stopped and it was completely still and quiet. We were in the eye of the hurricane! They said previously that the average winds around the eye would be 140 mph! Around that time my ears felt the same way as they do in going up in an airplane or high location. They felt like popping! The air pressure had become extremely low.

     After 3 AM, the winds started to subside a little and we felt that the hurricane had finally passed us by. We were then able to fall asleep resting in the arms of our God as never before.

     Around 6 AM, we were awakened by the breaking of daylight. Even though the winds were still strong and the rain was still falling, we could not resist to take a look at the outside world. And what a look that was! This was our "day after"! All around there was incredible damage.

     The St. Ann' s Parish Center was no longer a Parish Center. It was now a mass of twisted steel and a monument to the force of destruction. The roof on 2 of the rooms of the rectory was completely blown off and most of the galvanized covering on the other parts of the house were far away.

      One of the rooms with a missing roof was that of Fr. Elliott. Thank God that he did not stay up there! A piece of porch railing broke off and hit a covered picture window in the dining room and blew it out and hurled a huge dining room table across the room. A large and heavy cabinet of dishes moved down the room and turned the corner into Fr. Elliott's room! Dishes and other debris were all over in 2 or 3 inches of water.

     The roof and galvanized sheets on the roof of my room had been spared but one of the windows and curtains were completely blown away and a heavy air conditioner flew 20 feet from the wall in which it was mounted. Some of my belongings were water damaged but I was fortunate compared to the damage suffered by others.

     Bishop Sean O'Malley of the Virgin Islands had been staying at St. Joseph's Rectory, 4 miles away during the storm. Fr. Elliott and I attempted to go see him but we were not able to make it very far down the usual road because of all of the fallen trees. The destruction we saw all over was mind-boggling. Almost every house was damaged and many other buildings looked similar to the Parish Center of St. Ann's. And on top of that a heavy smell of rotting vegetation filled the air.

      Later I was able to arrive at the campus of St. Joseph High School and I saw the tremendous damage done to the school. Many of the roofs of the individual classroom buildings were off and a large part of the gym building was damaged. My own science classroom had its roof completely lifted off and much of the contents inside were scrambled and laying in 3 inches of green water on the floor. If that wasn't bad enough, the mosquitoes had also become plentiful from the stagnant water.

      During the time after the storm, a few of the people on St. Croix took part in what was now known here as the "second hurricane". With stores that were completely damaged and few police or national guard, the looting took place. In a short while practically the whole economic system on St. Croix had collapsed. Beautiful stores were now empty shells with debris decaying in putrid water.

      What was the reason for this "second hurricane"? Was it due to abnormal psychology or was it due to immorality? I won't answer that question here. But I will say that the news of that happening was distorted far out of proportion in the U.S. press. The people on St. Croix are good people and what happened here could happen anywhere in the States.

      Soon after the hurricane, Bishop Sean O'Malley had a meeting with the priests and Religious on St. Croix. With his inspirational words and practical advice, we all began the important tasks of starting to rebuild our churches, schools, rectories, and convents. At St. Ann's Church, the parishioners were able to have the 9 AM Mass outside and all were filled with with thankfulness for the sparing of most human life on St. Croix. On the following Sundays, the parish was able to use the old chapel with the help of an additionally scheduled Mass. However, the parishioners look forward to the day when they will have a new, strong, and large church.

     At the St. Joseph High School campus, we were able to come up with 4 usable classrooms at the school and at St. Joseph Church. In addition, the pastor of St. Patrick's Church in Frederiksted donated the use of 4 unused classrooms at that location. On October 2 and 3, we had a meeting with the students and their parents at St. Joseph Church and all were filled in about the details of the school's reopening.

     In addition, the students were given written and service assignments to do that were related to Hugo. My own project was called "Molecules For Life" and through it some students were able to help the St. Croix Catholic parishes to restore some additional quality of life. One student even helped out at the newly constructed tent-hospital.

     Because the public schools on the islands are taking a long time to open and because they recognized the quality of education at our school, over 50 students took entrance tests to enter St. Joseph High School. St. Joseph High School is recognized as being one of the top schools in the Caribbean area. It is the only school in the entire United States that has had 3 Presidential scholars in the last 4 years!

      On October 9, St. Joseph High School reopened on two campuses with an increasing number of students. All of the dedicated faculty of the school have returned and by praying and working together, we are making it work. In my own science classes, I hope to implement a program in the coming weeks to have students planting and caring for flower and vegetable seeds. I call it "Seeds for New Life". The success of that program will depend on the amount of seeds and small gardening tools that some may want to donate. (Note: This was written in 1989 and the requested help is no longer needed.)

     We are recovering on St. Croix and we hope that by this time next year life will be back to normal. But we still need your help and your prayers. Be assured that you and the many problems you have are also in our prayers.


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