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St. Thomas Starts To Clean Up Island's Worth Of Debris After Hurricane Irma

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As hard as Hurricane Irma hit Florida, it was much worse when it tore through islands in the Caribbean. Many of the 50,000 people who live on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands are in damaged homes without power. They're also struggling because of the huge amount of debris. It's everywhere, even blocking major roads. NPR's Jason Beaubien walked through the port of Charlotte Amalie to take a look.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Sort of all around St. Thomas at the moment you've just got piles of garbage in little corners, up against walls. You've also got people who've got tons of stuff that has gotten damaged and they're just throwing it out. Like right in front of us at the moment it's a bunch of Christmas stuff - people's stockings and their bulbs that they would be putting up on the trees and, like, an old suitcase and some shelves. People are just clearing out all the stuff that was severely damaged in Hurricane Irma.

LATTIE MAY PERCEVAL: The garbage truck wasn't out there for weeks.

BEAUBIEN: Sixty-eight-year-old Lattie May Perceval, pointing to a pile of trash just down the block from her house, says there hasn't been any garbage collection in her neighborhood since the storm. She says it's causing a lot of problems, like for her neighbor next door.

PERCEVAL: The garbage smells so bad. And she get - she having rat coming in her house, a big, big rat, because the garbage truck is not going out to pick up the garbage. It's time for the garbage truck to go out and pick up the garbage.

BEAUBIEN: But this is more than just a trash problem. Dealing with this issue is critical to the recovery, and crews are making an effort to get to the piles of debris and trash in the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK HORN)

BEAUBIEN: They've been working systematically to clear the streets, starting from the port where desperately needed food and fuel are being brought in. And then the crews are moving block by block up the hills of Charlotte Amalie. This is all happening as most of St. Thomas is still without power, and officials say it could be months before the electricity is fully restored. Downed power lines, tree branches, sheets of metal roofing and other debris still block many roads, making moving anywhere hazardous and difficult. Ten days after Irma hit, the main hospital remains shut. People are still being evacuated out of houses and apartments, some of which don't even have walls. Main roads across the island remain impassable.

ERICSON REVAN: You see, like, the whole island got swashed. So now hard to maneuver, you know?

BEAUBIEN: Ericson Revan is with the private construction company that's been working to clear the streets.

REVAN: It's a big job, and it's really hard.

BEAUBIEN: He says they're separating the debris, including lots of sheets of galvanized roofing material, as they move through the streets to make it easier to dispose of it.

REVAN: Galvanized, you see? That other truck, it carry galvanized. And there's another truck I have carry wood. And this one carry the trash. The big green one carry the trash.

BEAUBIEN: Public works officials have set up a dumping site over by the hospital to deal with the huge volume of hurricane debris. Revan's crew has been working all week through rains that have further hampered cleanup efforts. But his workers, he says, are eager to clear as much as they can.

REVAN: And the guys, them is very young and energetic even though we had this road here, the rain was coming. I asked them if they want to quit for the day. They said no, they want to continue. They've got to get the island back in shape.

BEAUBIEN: Getting the island back in shape is the big goal right now. And that starts with just being able to get the streets open again. Revan, however, says it's unclear exactly how long clearing the streets will take.

REVAN: It's going to be a long time. It will be a long time.

BEAUBIEN: And that's what officials are saying about all the other aspects of this recovery - the electricity, the hospital, reconstructing houses. It's going to take a long time. But to get started, one of the first things you need is for people to be able to move around. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, St. Thomas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAMIYAM'S "ITALY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.