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Let’s Help Hurricane Victims Kate & Joel Get Back On Their Feet

On Wednesday, September 6, Hurricane Irma tore through the Caribbean and devastated everything in its path. One of islands that faced Irma’s wrath was St. John, the smallest of three main U.S. Virgin Islands. It’s now over six months later and many of those who lived on St. John are still trying to recover from having their lives torn apart including Kate Farrington and Joel Walton. Kate and Joel are a couple I met after attending the Concert For Island Relief at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on January 6. Following the benefit concert, the pair told me their story of riding out Irma, losing all their possessions, making a treacherous journey to Puerto Rico and finally escaping to the mainland. I was heartbroken to hear of their experience and wrote about it as part of the lede of my review of the show for JamBase.

I was asked by both Phish fans and family members who read the piece how they could help Kate and Joel. After a few conversations with the pair, I decided the best way was to start a YouCaring fundraiser in aims of raising monies that will help the couple get back on their feet financially to relieve some of the stress Kate and Joel have been enduring each and every day since their lives were turned upside down. The goal of this YouCaring is to raise the approximately $3,000 (or as much of that figure as we can) the couple spent right after the storm to evacuate from St. John. While there are countless people who like Kate and Joel are still recovering from the traumatic and destructive storm, this is your chance to help on a micro level. Let’s get these two incredible people and live music fans back on their feet.

So that’s the basic gist, but for those who want to know more about the couple’s situation I’ll share their story which was told to me in our first conversation after the concert and in the many correspondences that we’ve exchanged since that night. First, I’ll detail their situation when the hurricane struck St. John, then I’ll describe the tenuous days after, their trip to Northeast Pennsylvania via Puerto Rico (right before Hurricane Maria destroyed that island) and detail the fateful circumstances in which I met Kate and Joel. Again, any help you can provide would be extremely appreciated and I’m happy to answer any questions you may have or Kate and Joel can weigh in if it’s something I don’t know. I just didn’t want to sit on my hands anymore and wanted to start to help them.

The Hurricane Hits

Kate and Joel lived in an apartment for seven years located “in town” (Cruz Bay) which was close to everything. Like most, their home was the epicenter of their lives and contained all of their belongings. The couple’s building had two storefronts on the ground level, eight apartments on the middle level and a few dozen storage units on the uppermost level. Although the building appeared to be a sturdy, concrete structure it was a simple construction of steel-frame, sheet rock and drywall. Knowing this, and because there were no hurricane shutters on the apartment windows, nor did the landlord allow for any accommodations to board up the windows ahead of the storms they chose to ride out Irma, and shelter their pets, with friends who lived in a concrete building with hurricane shutters. Thankfully they made that decision, as two days after the storm passed, when they could finally walk back to town after having to wait due to curfew restrictions and impassable roads, they found their home was flooded throughout.

The apartment next to Kate & Joel’s experienced the walls and ceiling blowing out. This image shows that damage to the front wall, and it wrapped around the corner of the unit as well. The ceiling was mostly fallen due to the flooding from above which leaked into our entire building, worse in some places.

A significant section of the ceiling in their kitchen/living room had fallen, dropping soaked drywall through to their floor, leaving a gaping hole through which they could see into the void between their apartments and the storage units above. All of the drywall walls and ceilings were drenched and quickly forming mold. The corrugated metal roof of the storage units had peeled back in the storm, flooding the units above them and leaking down in to all of the apartment units. The drainage pipe / gutter system used to collect the water from above was ripped from the building forcing all of the water to flow directly down a ‘drain’ above their front door and run into their apartment.  This soaked, damaged and ruined carpeting and furniture. While the couple did their best to dry out the apartment over the following week, continued rains made that impossible. Everything they used to mop up and block the water flows just did not dry out.

Leaving Their Home Of 8 (Kate) & 20 Years (Joel)

The last thing Kate and Joel wanted to do was to leave the island they loved so much, their friends and community. However, they attended a community meeting on the following Wednesday and realized that the general prognosis for St. John was that recovery was going to get worse before it got better. Organizers of the meeting actually suggested that if you were non-essential personnel and had the means to get off the island, then that was their recommended course of action. There were concerns about additional storms, further infrastructure damage, shortages of supplies and food, an increase in mold & mosquito born sickness and restricted health and medical care. Though Kate & Joel had worked to help others clean up, assisted in putting up a FEMA tarp for a veteran, and planned to stay and do more, it was after that meeting when they knew leaving was the right choice for them. Complicating the decision was that they were parents to two house cats, who had never left their apartment before.

The pair donated much of their clothing, non-perishables and household/toiletry supplies to neighbors and the pop-up Red Cross shelter as they knew space would be at a premium and they felt terrible for their neighbors that had no choice but to stay. At least Kate and Joel had the option of leaning on family until they could figure out what to do next, a safety net many didn’t have. They packed one bag each filled with essential clothes, key electronics, jewelry and a handful of mementos and prepared their cats to travel with them (requiring a round of shots from the vet and an inoculation certificate). After nine days of living mostly in the dark with no running water or electricity and living on an island where tensions were high and people were scared (they slept with a machete, crowbar and mace), Joel and Kate checked in with evacuation coordinators at the St. John National Park Dock on Thursday, September 14.

The Inn at Tamarind Court, outside K&J’s front door. Its roof and structures littered the neighborhood in all directions.

With one suitcase each, a backpack and a carry-on (the cats), the wait began for one of the few tentative evacuation ferries/ships that were starting to be scheduled. Thankfully, after a little while Joel saw a familiar boat captain who was using his own boat to help efforts, which was able to be salvaged and cleaned up after riding out the storm in the mangroves. The captain was voluntarily shuttling people from St. John to Puerto Rico and had a few extra spaces, which the couple gladly took rather than wait further and take up seats which others could use on the formal evacuation ferries.

The Trip To The Mainland Via Puerto Rico

For the next two-plus hours they made a ride across rough seas. Kate and Joel’s cats, which as noted had never left their home, were noticeably freaked out and having an even harder time than the humans. The vessel hit a squall which didn’t help. By the time they hit land the pair and their cats were extremely happy to be off the boat. Next was an hour-plus ride across the island over to the San Juan area.

When they arrived, Kate finally had cell service (the first time since the storm hit) and tried to book travel to the mainland. The problem was they were too late to get on any flights that day, flights on Friday were unavailable and the weekend rates were 3x the designated Evacuee rate which was being offered. With little choice, the couple booked flights for Monday morning and now had to figure out where they could stay with their two cats. They were met with goodwill and flexibility by a small hotel where they had previously visited during a more relaxing trip to Puerto Rico, as the hotel bent their rules about pets allowing their understandably unnerved cats to stay in the room with them.

On Monday morning Kate and Joel got to the airport very early and found a mass of people. In addition to all of the people from neighboring islands who had evacuated their homes, the airport was also filled with those trying to escape the wrath of Maria which was scheduled to make landfall the following day. For all of the horror the couple endured, they did catch a break by booking their travel far enough in advance of the approaching storm that they did catch a flight to Scranton, where they were met by Kate’s incredibly relieved parents.

Kate & Joel’s Background

Now that you’ve read about their experience both during the storm and in the days that followed, I wanted to provide a little more about Kate and Joel so you know who you’d be helping.

Joel Walton finished high school and after working through the following summer and into another Northeast winter, he moved down to St. John from Montpelier, Vermont on February 6, 1997 with a couple of friends who also wanted to experience STJ and what it was all about. They had been in touch with other schoolmates who made the same move the year prior. Upon arrival, Joel held numerous jobs, across all industries. He served as the first non-native porter on the public ferry dock, helping locals and tourists with their goods, bags and luggage, working for small tips. He was also a sandwich maker at a deli and a crew member on a sailboat. Joel quickly found his passion to be out on the water and pursued the classes and requirements needed to obtain his Captain’s license. He’s been working on multiple classes of boats and captaining vessels ever since.

Kate Farrington moved to St. John on September 21, 2009 from New York City. She spent 10 years in the “rat race” after graduating from college and felt physically and spiritually drawn to live in the Caribbean after a trip to Nevis in May ‘09. Kate gave notice to her job, sold off most of her belongings, spent some time with her parents, did some research and bought a ticket. At that time STJ was a place where people didn’t rely on internet or wifi and mobile phone service wasn’t a priority. It was still a remote destination and a relatively sleepy place, mostly free from social media and “Top 10”/”Best Of” travel list mania.

Joel and Kate met in early March of 2014 and have been dating ever since. You’ll notice they each told me the actual date they moved to the island. Each implanted St. Johnian remembers the day they arrived on island and they celebrate Island Anniversaries often, among friends. It’s an important day in each St. Johnian’s life story. That’s how they feel about being there, living there, being a part of “it,” and it (St. John) being an important part of who they are.

A day out enjoying the water on the tall ship Schooner Mystic which was visiting the USVI waters during winter months.

Why $3,000 & How Will The Funds Be Used

Kate provided me a list of all the expenses that resulted from having to evacuate and would not have otherwise incurred. They include transportation in the boat, van and taxi as well as the vet bills in STJ and upon arriving in Pennsylvania, their accommodations in Puerto Rico, the food for their four days in the P.R., their flight home, the basic clothes they needed and healthcare/hygiene costs. It came to $2,812.57 between all of expenses noted above. YouCaring is thankfully a platform that doesn’t charge a fee.  However, the donation processor does take 2.9%, plus $.30 per transaction. I will cover the 2.9% up to the $3,000 mark, so that all but $.30 of your donation will go directly to Kate and Joel. As you can imagine, the evacuation was just the beginning for the couple, who lost employment opportunities, their home and possessions, but we’ve got to start somewhere.

One of the first things Kate and Joel would like to use the money for is to take a trip back to St. John. Even all these months later, information about the situation on the island is hard to come by and they would need to visit to see if returning to the place they love so much is feasible. In addition, the funds will help them with their day-to-day lives and to help them get back on their feet. Any monies raised above the $3,000 would be split evenly between the couple and the St. John ‘Island Health & Wellness Center.’

Thanks for reading and even if you’re unable to contribute, please send good vibes Kate and Joel’s way.

  • Scott Bernstein (ScottyB)
Published inKate & Joel