Technically, Todd Beaty and the rest of the team at Cruz Bay Landing should have left St. John more than a week ago.
Nonessential occupants were asked to get off the island ahead of Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm that obliterated much of St. John, the smallest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands. That storm raged over the island earlier this month, but Beaty and his restaurant staff remain open, and they plan to stay open even as Hurricane Maria swirls toward the island.
Maria is a Category 3 storm that, if the island’s luck sours even more, might steamroll whatever is still upright on Saint John this week. The storm is projected to track south of St. Thomas and St. John, which might spare the island from Category 4 or 5 intensity winds. Maria is more likely to make landfall on the island of St. Croix, but it’ll probably still harass St. Thomas and St. John with powerful winds and buckets of rain.
Even so, Beaty says it was “very easy” for him and his staff to decide to stay.
“We actually have a goal and a focus and a meaning to be here,” Beaty said. “That’s what’s kept us sane.”
He estimates around 1,000 people a day have come to get food from the restaurant since Irma swamped the island. Cruz Bay Landing and another restaurant Beaty said remains open — The Longboard — are feeding as many people as they can.
The people who stayed behind
Though the government implored residents to evacuate, many didn’t have the necessary paperwork, or weren’t healthy enough to do so. Some didn’t have transportation to get to a ferry that would take them off the island, some have stayed because the animals they own couldn’t be evacuated, and some simply don’t have the money necessary to afford the transportation, food and lodging that evacuating often requires.
Jeanie Williamson, who lives on St. John with her family but avoided Irma because she was visiting her daughter in Europe, said it took days for her husband — Starbo Stevens — to get in touch with her after the storm. Williamson is staying in Blueridge, Georgia, as Maria pushes toward the island, but her son — Shaun Brian Sells — and Stevens plan to outlast that hurricane, too. Sells and his wife looked at tickets off the island, but they were far more than what they felt they could afford.
“I feel like they don’t want to leave everybody, and they feel like they’re gonna be OK,” she said. “Their adrenaline’s moving.”
Williamson’s family got through Irma by staying in a concrete bunker on their property, but several wooden homes they’d built were nothing more than splinters after the storm. Williamson’s bed simply vanished.
But she says she’ll be back, and, when she gets there, her family will go about building more homes on their property — concrete only now, and more tucked into the hillside.
Right now, Cruz Bay Landing is helping those who stay by functioning as a Red Cross food distribution center. They’re still getting food from their usual providers, though Beaty said the Red Cross is paying for the supply.
Open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for the time being, the restaurant serves bag lunches and a hot meal from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Today they’re serving rice, beans, and stewed chicken, but they change it up every few days.
Beaty knows the island will still have plenty of people in need of food once the worst of Maria is over, and he figures he and his staff have become part of the “essential personnel” needed to get St. John through this month of hellacious storms. He and eight others at Cruz Bay Landing got through Irma, so now they’re preparing for the same but hoping for something less devastating.
“I’ve lived here for 18 years and this is my home”
Tiffany Shannon, the restaurant’s manager, is one of those eight. She said the home she shares with her husband, Wade, is “no longer livable” after Irma, but they’re staying at a friend’s place while she shows up for work.
“I’ve lived here for 18 years and this is my home,” she said. “If I have to restart then I should do it at my home here on St. John.”
After Maria storms through, Beaty thinks it’ll be maybe nine or 10 weeks before the restaurant can again function as normal.
“I feel like the need is gonna be there for quite some time,” he said. “We’ll do it for as long as we’re requested to.”