Adventists on St. Thomas “cast down, but not destroyed”

They wore sanguine expressions on their faces. They were impeccably dressed as they usually are. Their praises to Jehovah God were as exuberant as they always are. Milling about, fraternizing and fellowshipping, they greeted each other with bright smiles, warm hugs and firm, friendly handshakes.
From the looks of this band of worshippers who congregated at the Shiloh Seventh-day Adventist Tabernacle, one could not imagine that a Category 5 – some unofficial reports suggest a Category 6 – hurricane had passed through the Caribbean a few days earlier, leaving, in her wake, a trail of devastation, destruction and even death in several of these islands, including the U.S. Virgin Islands, hard hitting St. Thomas.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017 will be forever etched deep in the minds of Virgin Islanders. It was the day Hurricane Irma – the ninth named storm, the fourth hurricane and second major hurricane of the 2017 Atlantic Hurricane season – made landfall on St. Thomas after churning its way from the Cape Verde Islands where it had developed into a hurricane from a tropical wave that had moved off the West African coast on Aug. 27. Weather reports from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Weather Center (NWC), the National Hurricane Center (NHC) and other similar agencies had warned of an impending, potentially life-threatening Category 5 storm heading towards the Caribbean, particularly the Northern Leeward islands, which include the U.S. Virgin Islands. As Irma drew closer to the Territory, authorities took to the airwaves to issue hurricane warnings and urged residents to take the necessary precautions to protect their lives and properties. Effective 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 5, Governor Kenneth Mapp declared a State of Emergency for the U.S. Virgin Islands and also ordered the Vigin Islands National Guard into active military service.

“We expect to be in the southern quadrant of this storm,” Governor Mapp said at a press conference held a day before Irma’s arrival. “We want the people of the Virgin Islands to be prepared. We have the experience going through hurricanes and we know that preparation and vigilance is the success to getting through hurricane weather. We have to be prepared. We have to take this event very seriously.”
No one could have predicted the havoc hurricane Irma would wreak on the territory, particularly on St. Thomas, the capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands – the flora and fauna have been significantly affected; trees have been left naked without any foliage; the island’s popular iguanas, which have lost their habitat, can be seen camouflaged and perched atop the defoliated trees looking for cover; the avian population has seemingly disappeared; damage to the island’s infrastructure is widespread; a considerable portion of homes were destroyed; a number of other structures, such as schools, hotels, the island’s sole hospital and airport and churches were also ravaged; and what were once verdant, undulating hillsides have been transformed into what appear to be barren, arid, desolate wastelands. This Category 5 hurricane, which rapidly intensified under favorable conditions shortly after formation with maximum sustained winds peaking at 185 mph and remaining at that strength for 37 hours, also took its toll on the human residents. Many Seventh-day Adventists were also victims of Hurricane Irma. Three storm-related deaths were also reported on the island.

“My entire roof is gone, so I’m staying with my sister,” Sis. Thomas said when asked how she fared during the storm. “If I start crying now, I wouldn’t stop.” “The wind was howling, the roof was squeaking and all of a sudden when we looked up, all we were seeing were the stars in the sky,” Sis. Henley said, as she recounted her Irma experience. “My daughter, my husband and I had to seek shelter in the cupboards and closets.” “My entire roof is gone; I lost everything,” Sis. Penn said.
“My mother and I had to secrete ourselves in the bathroom cupboards after the hurricane blew off our storm shutters and we heard the glass windows and doors breaking,” Chinedu, a 13-year-old boy said, as he described his first encounter with a major hurricane. “We rode out the storm singing and praying.”

Many other members shared similar narratives as they relived their Hurricane Irma experiences. However, despite the major structural damages to their homes, their being displaced and their having lost most, and in some cases all, of their earthly possessions, Adventists on St. Thomas were not despondent, dismayed, depressed or dejected. The ubiquitous phrase uttered by everyone was, “Thank God we’re alive.”
Three days after the passage of Hurricane Irma, Adventists from throughout the island gathered at the Shiloh SDA Tabernacle for a constituency meeting with the top brass from the North Caribbean Conference (NCC), which included Desmond James, the newly-elected president of the NCC and Wilmoth James, Director of the Adventist Disaster and Relief Agency (ADRA), the humanitarian arm of the church.
“We came here as quickly as we can because we want you to know that we are here for you; we feel your pain,” Pastor Desmond James told the congregants. “We scheduled this meeting with you to carve out a path to the recovery process.”

Pastor Wilmoth James, who recently assumed his current position, explained to the body that although ADRA does not work in areas where the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is present to avoid duplication of efforts, the organization has a duty to its members.
“We want you to make assessments, identify your needs and we will work on getting those things to you,” he said. “If you got damaged in any way, insured or not, let us know. Take as many pictures as you can. We will also be going out into the community to assist those in need.”
Members listed a number of items that they needed, chief among them were tarpaulin to cover their damaged or missing roofs, water and hot meals.
Hurricane Irma has also totally razed the SDA Philadelphia Church, rendering it useless and it caused some damage to the Maranatha SDA Church. The St. Thomas/St. John SDA School was also extensively damaged during the passage of Irma.

Following the passing of the storm, Pastor Jerry Languedoc of the Shiloh SDA Church has opened the doors of his sanctuary to Pastor Glendon Cross and his members from the Philadelphia SDA community.

“The Shiloh Church family has graciously welcomed the members of the Philadelphia brethren to join them in worship,” Pastor Languedoc said.
The St. Thomas/St. John SDA School will resume classes at the Shiloh SDA multipurpose center on Oct. 2.


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© 2017 Seventh-day Adventist Church, South Caribbean Conference.