Gone With the Wind in St John, USVI
Paradise. Dreamland. Heaven. Arriving in St. John by ferry from neighboring St. Thomas I heard these and other ecstatic praises of our destination. And it was no surprise. For the next four days I was to discover one beautiful beach after another. I wouldn’t have known it from looking at the calm turquoise sea and cloudless sky but hurricane season had officially begun a month ago. The locals, however, were well aware that until November, when hurricane season ends, anything could happen.
The Virgin Island chain lies in a popular pathway of many a hurricane raging through the Caribbean. St. John had been hit often and islanders certainly didn’t just wait around for the next one to strike. Hurricane season, I discovered, is the islanders’ obsession. And in the Virgin Islands this obsession gets a holiday or two.
Not just a legal holiday but also a sort of cultural event, Hurricane Supplication Day, which is celebrated on the fourth Monday of July, dates back over 270 years. The whole island takes the day off to go to church where they pray not to be hit by a hurricane. The attitude in the islands is the more the merrier–and the stronger the prayers–so even tourists have been known to join in on the supplication. If St. John is hit, the islanders’ backup prayer is to spare lives and minimize property damage.
In town I talked to locals who had lost power and water for months after hurricanes in years past. A lady I met described in detail the havoc some hurricanes had caused and how you just learn to pick up the pieces, literally, and start again. “Oh, it’s not so bad,” she laughed when I said that it sounded like a nightmare. I followed her eyes to the crystalline sea and held my breath. If you call St. John your home, I wondered, where do you go on vacation?
The next morning a guide took me on a hike through the island’s protected park where I learned about the colonial days, the plants and herbs islanders used to cure all sorts of ailments, and of course, more about hurricanes. “After hurricane season when my wife and I want a vacation we go to where you’re sleeping,” he said referring to the Westin St. John Resort. “We sleep on that Heavenly Bed [the hotel chain’s signature bed], watch some heavenly TV and order some heavenly room service. We don’t leave the room,” he laughed.
On the third Monday of October locals celebrate the end of the season on Hurricane Thanksgiving Day. Islanders returned to church last month and were thankful that the islands made it through another year. “Hurricane Thanksgiving is a very old holiday. It is one of the oldest holidays we have in the Virgin Islands,” says historian Myron Jackson. “From historical records we can go back to 1726 when the first service was conducted in one of the oldest standing structures on St. Thomas, which is the over-300-year-old Fort Christian.”
The Virgin Islands region remains one of the hardest hit parts of the world during hurricane cycles. These two holidays may hint of wishful thinking, but then when you live in the Caribbean anything helps. And keeping spirits up never hurt anyone.
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