BATH — When Hurricane Irma ripped through the Caribbean before landing on U.S. shores, Bath resident Tracey Morse-Bushnell spent a sleepless night hoping for a better outcome than the one predicted.

Her 20-year-old son Thaddeus, a graduate of Morse High School in Bath, lives in St. Thomas, where he is a certified scuba diver instructor and a U.S. Coast Guard merchant mariner. He works hard to make a living in a place that is a challenging paradise, on the best of days.

Morse-Bushnell, a Woolwich native, lived in the Virgin Islands for 10 years and began her family there. She moved back to Maine with her son in 2006.

“He spent all of his school breaks in St. Thomas with his father, grandmother, uncles, cousins, and friends,” Morse-Bushnell said. “All of his relatives in St. Thomas are natives to the island. His father is a third generation St. Thomian.”

Thaddeus rode out the storm in his family home, a sturdy cement building, but the damage to the island was significant. Just two weeks later, Hurricane Maria, the second Category 5 hurricane of the season, barreled along, its eye hovering exactly over St. Thomas.

While post-hurricane concerns were numerous — life without water, electricity, fuel or communications, peppered with a degree of lawlessness — the lively mom and fitness trainer poured worry-driven energy into direct action.

She undertook what she thought might be a modest fundraising effort, involving donations of goods and supplies (dropped off at Tony Dance Fitness Studio in Bath) and a bottle drive (launched at Brackett’s Market in Bath).

Only two weeks later, Morse-Bushnell arrived in St. Thomas with nearly 800 pounds of supplies and a $2,000 cash donation.

“I found an organization called ‘Patient Airlift Services’ that matched me up with a private jet pilot to bring everything except for the toiletries … about 600 pounds of things like tarps, flashlights, batteries, diapers, solar showers, mosquito nets,” she said.

“I brought over 100 pounds of toiletries down through a Delta Airlines commercial flight. They waived the baggage fees and it was cheaper than shipping.”

She was also able to deliver the supplies directly to the right people by making the trip herself. “My first thought when I got to St. Thomas was, ‘it looks like a bomb went off.’ Debris and roofs scattered throughout the hillsides, trees bare and mangled. It’s overwhelming and emotional. This is where people live, and it’s just devastating.”

Morse-Bushnell coordinated her efforts through an old friend from St. Thomas.

Tracey Morse-Bushnell (right) and her St. Thomas friend Karen Querrard stock shelves with donated supplies from Maine at a distribution site on St. Thomas. Contributed photo

“My dear friend Karen Querrard has been working on distribution sites, and working with the Family Resource Center of St. Thomas. I had the pleasure of meeting Vernon Araujo, the development director of the FRC, and was able to give him some of the supplies that had been collected here along with a cash donation. He was thrilled!”

Morse-Bushnell decided to continue fundraising for the Family Resource Center after seeing their work first-hand, and says that making donations directly to the center is one way to help. She also recommends a group called Adopt A Family USVI, which pairs supporters and donations with families in need. Adopt A Family distributes care packages to groups including the Family Resource Center.

“They are very focused on getting the supplies directly to the people, assessing their needs, taking care of the families that are in shelters, providing kids’ and seniors’ programs. They are just an amazing group.”

According to Morse-Bushnell, almost 100 percent of people are still without power, and will be for a few months. Only a small percentage of people can afford a generator and the fuel for it. Sixty to 70 percent have no roof, or have devastating damage to their homes, and most people are unemployed because tourism is the main industry. The daily rain makes everything worse, creating ripe conditions for mosquito-borne illnesses.

Morse-Bushnell says the people of the Virgin Islands feel largely overlooked and forgotten, in light of the hurricane damage in Florida, Puerto Rico and other big news stories of the day.
“People do feel forgotten by the mainland. That’s what they’re going through now,” Morse-Bushnell said, “ but they’re resilient and are helping each other as best they can. I’m personally compelled to do everything I can, not only because of my personal connection, but because there are so many there that have absolutely nothing left.”

Her son Thaddeus has always considered St. Thomas his home, and “is in his element there, it’s what makes his soul happy. It’s where he’s meant to be,” she said.

After the hurricanes, Thaddeus worked retrieving phone cable for a local contractor, and is about to embark on the hazardous work of underwater salvage in the harbor. “It’s dangerous, but it needs to be done so that cruise ships can get back in,” she said.

You can reach Tracey Morse-Bushnell on Facebook, or by emailing her at [email protected]. Bootleggers in Topsham will continue the bottle drive effort, and will match 10 percent of donations. Adopt A Family USVI is found on Facebook and at www.adoptafamilyusvi.com, and the Family Resource Center is also on Facebook and at www.frcusvi.org