President Eyring Visits Branch on St. Thomas in Wake of Hurricane Irma
Contributed By Jason Swensen, Church News staff writer
- President Eyring met with members on St. Thomas on September 15.
- No Church members in St. Thomas were injured or killed during Hurricane Irma.
- Church members are looking out for each other in the aftermath of the hurricane’s destruction.
“We know the recovery effort is in the hands of the Lord, and we’ve all got renewed faith and hope.” —Steven Richards, president of the St. Thomas Branch
ST. THOMAS, U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS
The St. Thomas Branch enjoyed a much-needed boost on September 15 when President Henry B. Eyring, First Counselor in the First Presidency, and other general Church leaders visited with the members in their damaged meetinghouse.
“Being with President Eyring and the others was a tremendous opportunity for us,” said Steven Richards. “We know we’re out here in the boonies—but the Church has not forgotten us. We know the recovery effort is in the hands of the Lord, and we’ve all got renewed faith and hope.”
President Eyring’s visit to St. Thomas was one of several stops during a visit to the Caribbean and Florida, September 15–17, 2017, where he met with Mormon Helping Hands volunteers of all ages and Latter-day Saints affected by Hurricane Irma’s destructive forces.
When Hurricane Irma recently raged across this Caribbean island they call home, Richards and his wife, Kim, hunkered down with their children and made the best of an awful situation.
After boarding up the windows of their house, the Richards family shared a family prayer then played games by the light of a few lanterns. But it was impossible to ignore Irma’s historic, horrific power raging across St. Thomas on September 6.
“You could tell there was something going on outside,” said Richards, laughing at his own understatement. “It was nerve-wracking. It was terrifying.”
When Irma finally veered from St. Thomas and moved toward Puerto Rico, Cuba, and, eventually, Florida, the family emerged from their home, assessed the damage, and began counting their blessings.
They were alive and uninjured—and their home escaped any significant damage.
As president of the LDS branch on St. Thomas, Richards felt doubly blessed to learn no one from his congregation had been killed or injured.
“Everyone in the branch here is thanking Heavenly Father for that fact,” he told the Deseret News.
But make no mistake: Hurricane Irma exacted an awful price on Latter-day Saints and their neighbors in St. Thomas. The pain of the storm is being felt more than a week after hitting the island—and it will sting for months to come.
“It’s still really rough out here,” said Steven. “There’s a lot of debris, damage, and devastation all over the place.”
Two members of the branch lost their residences. One man’s home was destroyed. Another man, who lived on a sailboat, could not save his nautical abode.
The island’s small LDS meetinghouse also suffered significant damage. About a quarter of the roof was destroyed, and Irma’s brutal winds toppled the steeple. Still, the building is salvageable and continues to be used even though it remained without power or running water Sunday.
While St. Thomas residents are weary of power outages, Richards said access to clean water is the island’s most immediate challenge. Each day, civic and relief organizations distribute water and military-style “meals-ready-to-eat” (MREs) to residents. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is counted among the organizations shipping relief supplies to St. Thomas.
“But getting water to my members is becoming an issue,” said Richards.
St. Thomas’s tourist-driven economy will be weakened for months to come. Limited power and water, coupled with the island’s compromised infrastructure, will likely keep vacationers away from St. Thomas, said Richards, a business owner in the local boating industry.
The coming weeks and months won’t be easy for the island’s small Mormon community. But Richards said the 40-plus members of the branch are looking out for one another. They've taken each other into their homes and donated personal precious resources to help others get by.
“My soul has been lifted by the charitable actions of the members,” he said.
The roof of the St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, LDS meetinghouse suffered significant damage during Hurricane Irma. Photo courtesy of Steven Richards.
Hurricane Irma’s high winds toppled the steeple of the St. Thomas Branch meetinghouse. Photo courtesy of Steven Richards.