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Catherine Kling

The Virgin Islands is famous for its brilliant, turquoise-blue waters.

But it's another blue that has Catherine Kling's attention.

"When you drive around, there are still so many blue roofs," said Catherine, area retail sales manager for the Virgin Islands.

"After the storms, FEMA came on the island and provided a temporary roof, but it's basically a blue tarp. They call it the blue roof project. It's a constant reminder of what took place. And how slow the recovery has been for some people."

But here's what has Catherine concerned now: it is hurricane season again.

Photo credit: Davion Womble

A double blow   

Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the Virgin Islands less than 2 weeks apart.

"That was the most difficult part of it. There was so much destruction, plus it plays with the psyche," Catherine said.

When the eye of Hurricane Irma tore through St. Thomas, it affected our network. "It was 2 days before I could find a cell site that was working and could call my boss and let her know I was alive," Catherine said.

At the same time, 18 of our 24 employees on St. Thomas were dealing with severely damaged or uninhabitable homes.

But after both hurricanes, our stores on both St. Thomas and St. Croix reopened within days, running on generators. They served crowds of customers, anxious to communicate with friends and family.

Meanwhile, Catherine worked her contacts. One big-box store opened early for first responders. Catherine arranged for her employees to be included in that category. "Once we start to work, there was not much of an opportunity to leave the store. We also had to adhere to the curfews, leaving no time for personal errands."

Many of the employees lost their cars to the hurricanes, so Catherine picked them up in her car. The hurricane had claimed a few windows, but it was running – and public transportation was not.

Dealing with the aftermath

Nearly half of her employees received assistance from our Employee Relief Fund, Catherine said. The emergency money was invaluable for renting new homes, installing doors or windows in damaged ones or replacing ruined clothing. "Some of them lost everything."

"She was the first person to contact the staff every day to ensure we were OK, that we ate and that our families were safe and OK. She has been a friend, big sister and mother figure as we recover. Her passion for the team to ensure our success and well-being is above what is needed."

Raymond E. Green, St. Thomas store manager

The domino effect

The St. Thomas store is directly across from one of the island's main ports, where large cruise ships dock on a regular basis – but now, not as often.

About 5 or 6 cruise ships used to stop daily at St. Thomas ports. "Now we barely get 1. So this is a huge decrease. The island survives on tourism," Catherine said.

It’s still paradise

Construction on the Virgin Islands is challenging. Materials and equipment are shipped by boat or barge. Most contractors come from Puerto Rico, which also is recovering from Hurricane Maria.

Blue roofs still dot the islands because residents can't get a contractor – or can't afford one, Catherine said.

Repairs, deep-cleaning and painting of the St. Croix and St. Thomas stores were complete in March.

Meanwhile, the lush landscape is recovering on its own.

"Right here at the St. Thomas store, I'm able to see the sea – about 10 feet away from the store's entrance. It's beautiful, warm, blue water. I am confident it is just going to get better as time progresses. It's still a beautiful place – that's for sure. It's still paradise."