Torrents of muddy water ripped up roads, saturated ground gave way to landslides and toppling trees, and driving a vehicle anywhere was a dangerous operation Thursday as the Virgin Islands continued to be soaked by Subtropical Storm Otto for a fourth day in a row.
Throughout the territory, wary motorists navigated roadways that were like obstacle courses, alternately plowing through or swerving around rushing water and debris, depending on oncoming traffic.
V.I. Police responded to almost non-stop calls throughout the day reporting stuck or stranded vehicles and flooded roads.
In Christiansted, a vehicle became stuck when the driver was unable to spot an open manhole under the water-covered roadway, said Police Department spokeswoman Melody Rames. No one was injured, but a wrecker had to be called to pull the car out, she said.
“It’s really bad out there on all three islands,” Rames said Thursday evening. “A lot of roads are deteriorating. We’re just continuing to tell everyone to stay home if possible. You go through those puddles, and you really don’t know what’s underneath them. It could be debris, it could be a big pothole, it could be a manhole cover is off.”
Just before 4 p.m., a wrecker pulling a truck up Mafolie Hill appeared to be stuck. But before a wrecker for the wrecker was called, the vehicle managed to crest the hill.
Things got worse after dark.
An 18-wheeler jackknifed on Donkey Hill after the driver was unable to gain enough traction to get up the steep climb in the pouring rain. St. Thomas Police Chief Rodney Querrard said traffic was backed up in both directions as personnel from the Police, V.I. Property and Procurement and V.I. Public Works departments used two government wreckers to carefully pull the truck up the hill.
In Anna’s Fancy, a retaining wall came down on top of a house and damaged the neighboring house as well, leaving both structures unstable. Querrard said the residents were evacuated.
“We’re going to have a lot of that from now until Saturday. The ground is so saturated we just can’t take anymore, and it’s going to give way to landslides,” he said.
St. Thomas-St. John roads
Saturated soil conditions and perpetual rainfall continued to wreak havoc on the territory’s roadways, with the greatest impact on St. Thomas.
“We have a number of roads that I’ve had to close off,” said Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls.
Brookman Road, overwhelmed by storm water runoff making its way to the sea, was closed on and off throughout the day Thursday.
Ultimately, officials made a final decision to close it to traffic, for the safety of motorists and residents, until Public Works can assess the situation after daybreak today, Smalls said.
“We’ve had a continuous volume of water and steady erosion,” Smalls said of Brookman Road. “It’s been damaged. We were attempting to get in there today to address it, but while we were there trying to address it, we had a deluge of rain coming down, and I had to pull the crews.”
Smalls said he could not “overemphasize the amount of water coming through Brookman Road.”
The runoff from areas as far afield as Al Cohen’s Plaza on Raphune Hill, the areas around Cost-U-Less, the Donoe Bypass, Old Tutu, New Tutu, Hidden Valley and Tutu Park Mall makes its way to the sea through the Brookman Road area, Smalls said.
“We’re continuing to experience unprecedented rainfall in a short period of time, which has exacerbated the situation,” he said.
He said that once the weather clears, Public Works will begin making repairs.
Main Street also was flooded and had to be closed, Smalls said.
A major obstruction in the gutter system in the area sent the runoff draining from Mafolie Hill into the street between the post office and Cardow Jewelers, Smalls said.
He noted that debris — downed limbs and branches — left by Hurricane Earl up in the hills has been washed down into the drainage system by the heavy rains.
“We’ve seen everything in there,” Smalls said.
The water flooded some stores on the east end of Main Street, he said.
Public Works will be excavating to get in and remove debris from the box culvert under the roadway as soon as possible, he said.
“In between the rainfall, that’s what we’re going to be doing,” he said, noting that Main Street could be reopened, but it all depends on the rainfall.
“Any continued rainfall overnight, it’s more than likely we’ll have that closed,” he said Thursday night.
The road going through Savan off Catherineberg also was closed because of mud and debris.
“Despite our best efforts to try to clear it, the mud continues to come down,” Smalls said, adding that crews will reassess the situation and begin cleanup again this morning.
Smalls said the drainage system was built to handle the kind of rainfall the territory typically gets.
There were problems on other roadways across the island with localized flooding and mudslides, but crews scrambled to keep roads passable.
Smalls also asked that residents stay off the roadways if possible — and exercise caution if they must be out.
“If you do not need to be out there, the best place to be is home, safe, secure and dry,” he said. “We encourage motorists who have to be out to proceed with caution.”
On St. John, Public Works continued to clear rockslides along Centerline Road and deal with localized flooding in the Enighed Pond area, along with dealing with minor issues on roadways around the island, Smalls said.
St. Croix Roads
On St. Croix, the biggest problems were clearing debris in the La Vallee area along North Shore Road, and localized flooding on the road from Frederiksted to Ham’s Bluff on the island’s West End. Crews dug a trench to allow the water to subside.
Smalls praised the work done by crews on all three islands, as well as the efforts of Assistant Commissioner Roberto Cintron on St. Croix and Deputy Commissioner Ira Wade on St. John.
The government opened shelters on all three islands Wednesday, although only the one on St. Thomas received clients that day, said Marla Matthew, programs and services director for the American Red Cross of the Virgin Islands.
The Red Cross runs the shelters in conjunction with the V.I. Human Services Department. The other shelters are located at Bethany Moravian Church on St. John and at Educational Complex on St. Croix.
Five people who were displaced by the rain and flooding on St. Thomas stayed at the shelter at Project STRIVE Senior Center in the Knud-Hansen Complex on Wednesday night, Matthew said.
Thursday afternoon, St. Thomas police received a call that three homeless people were in need of assistance. Officers collected them from Frenchtown and brought them to the shelter.
With heavy rains continuing, a decision was made to keep all three shelters open Thursday night as a precautionary measure, Matthew said.
Officials plan to re-evaluate the situation this morning, she said.
V.I. Water and Power Authority spokeswoman Cassandra Dunn said St. Croix suffered more outages than the St. Thomas-St. John District did Thursday.
“On St. Croix, where the rain has been perpetual, there have been a lot of problems,” Dunn said.
Because of that, WAPA opened its emergency call center on St. Croix on Thursday, fielding calls until 9 p.m. The center will open again this morning at 7:15 a.m. to take reports on outages at 713-9272.
The ground is so saturated that trees are loosening at the roots and leaning on power lines, according to Dunn. St. Thomas is not seeing the same kind of damage because so many of the poles and infrastructure are new — having been replaced after Hurricane Earl, Dunn said.
Thursday, WAPA crews finished repairs to the major areas on St. Thomas and St. John that were without power Tuesday and Wednesday, continuing to address isolated outages when they occurred.
Dunn said St. Croix crews were working in Grove Place, St. John, Castle Coakley, Castle Burke, Enfield Green, William’s Delight, Salt River, La Grande Princesse, Turner Hole, Mahogany Welcome and several Northside areas.
“It’s a little tough with the weather, but they are out there, they are working,” Dunn said.
V.I. Waste Management Authority Chief Operating Officer Steven Aubin said the territory’s wastewater systems are full with all the stormwater rushing into the gutters and drains, but all treatment plants and pump stations are functioning normally.
He said the biggest problem is when the sewers get so full the water pushes up the manhole covers.
Aubin is asking anyone who sees a missing or dislodged manhole cover to call the Waste Management Authority at 774-4139 on St. Thomas, 776-6346 on St. John or 718-4489 on St. Croix.
The rains that have pummeled the territory since Monday seem to have done at least as much damage as Hurricane Earl, V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency Deputy Director Noel Smith said Thursday.
The Virgin Islands must have $1 million or more in damage to public property before seeking a disaster declaration, according to Smith. VITEMA will not know how bad the damages are until the rains are over and assessment teams are sent out, Smith said, but he expects the territory to seek a disaster declaration.
“It looks like we’ve probably passed that threshold,” Smith said. “But until we actually go out and do the assessments, I can’t say for sure.”
All government department directors and commissioners are participating in twice-daily conference calls with Gov. John deJongh Jr. and National Weather Service meteorologists, Smith said.
Separately, the four section-chiefs and three managers for each island’s Emergency Operations Center participated in conference calls with the National Weather Service on Wednesday and Thursday, according to Smith.
— Daily News staff writer Constance Cooper contributed to this report.