Over the past month, Kenny Chesney has done an enormous amount of work in an effort to rebuild and revive the island of St. John following hurricanes Irma and Maria. Here’s that story from the beginning…
Let’s rewind back to Friday, September 8th, two days after Hurricane Irma struck St. John. Most of the island was barely able to get cell service other than some spotty communication over near Ronnie’s Pizza in Cruz Bay. I was able to get a few messages to and from my parents, and I remember getting one in particular from my dad (who affectionately refers to himself as “Papa News”). It read, “Kenny’s team is coming. You’re all going to be ok.”
Kenny’s team? Who knew Kenny Chesney had a “team,” I wondered. And how on earth did my dad even know this? I thought about it for a second or two, perplexed, and then continued on with my day.
A few friends and I drove up to Kenny’s house the next day – Saturday, September 9th – to check on some other friends who hunkered down there during the storm. Many of you may have already heard this part of the story – that 17 people, including several young children and a few dogs, sheltered at his St. John home during Hurricane Irma. That home was pretty much destroyed, but fortunately all 17 people and the dogs were safe.
As we walked into what was once Kenny’s home, I saw Ben, his boat captain, and several other of Kenny’s “team”. His “team” as it turns out were all St. Johnians – some current, some former. What these men and Kenny’s team as a whole have accomplished from that day on is simply incredible.
“Kenny sent his plane down immediately, right after the wind stopped blowing” John McInnis told me last week as we sat on a 50 passenger relief plane which was headed to St. John stocked with generators, internet equipment, rakes, shovels and a host of other cleanup equipment. John is heading up Kenny’s Love for Love City Foundation, an organization benefiting Hurricane Irma disaster relief. He is also the owner of the popular Flora-Bama beach bar, a bar Kenny sung about on his The Big Revival album. (The McInnis family knows a thing about disaster recovery as they were instrumental in the cleanup and rebuilding efforts of Hurricane Ivan, Hurricane Katrina, and the BP oil spill.) “We loaded that initial plane with key personnel and supplies and flew it to St. Croix. Those people and supplies were taken by private helicopter directly to St. John.”
According to John, the Love for Love City Foundation was formed immediately after Hurricane Irma devastated our island on September 6th. The goal was to make sure 100 percent of the monies raised went directly to the people of the Virgin Islands – both the USVI and Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands. Because it is a private organization, they were able to start working immediately and were able to enter the Territory weeks before the airport and ports reopened. Kenny’s team was in fact the first people on the ground. They arrived even before the United States military … pretty amazing if you ask me.
“Private citizens don’t have red tape,” John said. “We can identify needs, respond quickly and we don’t have to go through a process to get approval. That’s how we were able to accomplish it.”
During the first three weeks post-Irma, the Love for Love City Foundation sent between 50 and 100 loads of food, water, emergency supplies, medicine, medical equipment, chainsaws, generators, cleanup equipment and other basic supplies like bug spray, batteries and flashlights to the Virgin Islands. They did so using private jets, private helicopters, private charter boats and fishing boats, and ferries. The private boats – the majority came from St. Croix – donated their time and fuel. So a huge thank you to the residents of St. Croix who stepped up in a big way to help our community when we needed it most.
The Love for Love City Foundation has also been instrumental during the island’s evacuation process. They helped evacuate more than 1,000 people from St. John and flew another 300 privately off the island following hurricanes Irma and Maria.
(While it was not mandatory, the island’s residents were strongly encouraged to evacuate. It is estimated that less than half of the St. John’s 4,500 residents remain following both hurricanes.)
In addition to bringing supplies and helping with evacuations, Kenny’s team is also working hard each day to rebuild our community, as well as Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands. They’ve cleared roads. They’ve removed debris. They cleaned up all of Cruz Bay including its beaches, the Gifft Hill School, the St. John Christian Academy in Pine Peace, and even the nearby basketball courts, all so people could maintain a sense of normalcy. They’ve been working over in Coral Bay, Bordeaux and throughout the island. Over the weekend, the team sent 90 people to Jost van Dyke to clean up its main roads, church, school and police station. They even brought in a barge this weekend filled with heavy equipment, generators and other supplies.
John McInnis and the rest of Kenny’s team are quick to point out, however, that they are not the only ones making an impact on St. John. They’ve partnered with Tom Secunda, a cofounder of Bloomberg who happens to own property on St. John. The Bloomberg team has worked tirelessly in the weeks following Irma to help restore St. John’s infrastructure. They also arranged to have the Johns Hopkins Go Team flown in after Kenny’s Foundation restocked the island’s clinics with medical supplies. (The Johns Hopkins Go Team is a rapidly deployable medical group established to respond to regional and national disasters.)
The Chesney/Bloomberg team also sent a private, 50-passenger jet to New York in order to bring down 29 New York State Troopers, so they could provide additional security on St. John. Those troopers returned to New York last Wednesday; however 19 police officers from New Jersey remain on island. There are countless other groups working together to aid the islands’ recovery and rebuilding efforts including St. John Rescue, the St. John Community Foundation, local police and fire teams, FEMA and Witt O’Brien’s, as well as the churches and countless business owners.
“Based on all of my experience in disasters, the response from FEMA and the U.S. Military and the public private partnership has been the best I have ever seen,” John said.
The actions of the private sector following hurricanes Irma and Maria have been absolutely remarkable. A senior FEMA official summarized it best at a recent community meeting. He said that the response on St. John should be a model for future disaster recovery. How amazing is that…
So if you’ve donated to the Love for Love City Foundation and are curious if your dollars are being used appropriately, the answer is overwhelmingly yes.
So now it’s John’s turn to answer a question I’ve been asking nearly everyone I’ve encountered over the past few weeks. In your opinion, what does the future of tourism look like on St. John?
“I think we need a few short months to get things back to a new normal,” John said. “By this winter, some of the key places that everybody loves will be back up and running again. There will be places for people to stay and plenty to do. The beaches and the water will be as beautiful and clean as ever. The atmosphere, the place and, most importantly, the people that everyone fell in love with, will be back to an enjoyable state and ready for visitors.
“From there, its just a matter of fixing the power grid, the houses, those sort of things,” he continued. “It could take a year or two for everything to get back to exactly like it was, but it won’t take that long for everyone to be able to come back and enjoy it. A great opportunity lies ahead for the people of the Virgin Islands to determine what the future will look like. With the technology that God has blessed us with today like solar energy, the sky is the limit. People should be excited to see what the future holds in the Virgin Islands. It’s easy to dwell on the current state of our islands, but we really need to stay focused on the future because it’s very bright.”
There are many people who say they want to help; there are others who actually do it. Kenny is a doer, and I could not be more grateful. The community is grateful. Our islands are grateful. But it’s not just Kenny who is helping, it’s all of you. He has the voice, but you all have been there to support him, to support us. And for that, I simply cannot thank you all enough.
If you’d like to donate to the Love for Love City Foundation, please visit www.kennychesney.com
NewsofStJohn.com is a blog about the daily happenings of St. John, an island in the US Virgin Islands. It is owned and managed by Jenn Manes.