U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS — Flying five hundred feet over the harbor at the foot of Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, Maria Rodriguez points out the blue-tarp scars dozens of buildings still bear two years after a pair of hurricanes devastated this and nearby Caribbean islands.
Usually lush and green, the hills of St. Thomas and its U.S. Virgin Islands neighbor St. John are still noticeably denuded of leaves from the one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. Rodriguez points out a former primary school, still unoccupied by students. Instead, its schoolyard is filled with fill dirt and debris still being piled up, pushed and pulled from the hillside by cleanup crews.
Flying in leather sandals on a beautiful mid-April day, Rodriguez knows where to look for lingering signs of damage. She was here, in this very Robinson R44, just hours after Irma scoured the landscape of homes and leaves. When the storm moved back out over the sea, where the blue plastic would spread, Rodriguez could see down into the roofless homes.
Once the 120-plus mile per hour winds subsided and nearly a foot of rain fell on St. Thomas, Rodriguez emerged from her house in the hills and made for the airport. She clambered over downed trees and thick, displaced brush, across washed-out roads, around houses torn from their foundations, to check on her aircraft.
Everything in the hangar at Cyril E. King Airport was repositioned to squeeze helicopters and private planes into the relatively safe space. Rodriguez had no idea if the building or any of the aircraft inside survived or were operational.
“We repositioned everything in the hangar to maximize what could come in,” she told Rotor & Wing International in a recent interview. “Everybody wants space in the hangar when there’s a hurricane coming. So, we made ourselves much smaller, in a smaller space and accommodated a whole lot of other aircraft.”
Rodriguez began her flying career as a fixed-wing pilot for a company that has since moved to the U.S. mainland. She chose both to stay on St. Thomas and to transition to rotorcraft because she preferred helicopters to airplanes, she said before a recent charter flight between St. Thomas and St. John.
She opened Caribbean Buzz and Caribbean Buzz Management, which she still owns and operates. They have two Robinsons R44s that seat three plus a pilot and an H145 that can carry eight passengers between islands and to and from yachts and secluded or remote adventure destinations in both the U.S. and British Virgin Islands.
The company’s pilots have 25,000 collective accident, incident and violation free flight hours and more than 50 years of aviation experience.
At the moment, Rodriguez is back to a typical daily mission of ferrying the Rotor & Wing editor and his wife from the airport to the health clinic atop St. John. From the airport, she coaxes the R44 into the sky and east over Mosquito Point and a giant cruise ship docked at the west end of Charlotte Amelie. Paralleling the seaplane landing lane, the aircraft hovers over the city’s harbor, inland from which a Carnival market is blooming.
The enthusiastic tour guide in Rodriguez points out items of interest and gives her passengers a Raven’s-eye view of the “A,” a massive 470-foot luxury sailing yacht owned by Russian oligarch Andrey Melnichenko that happened to be at anchor between the islands.
Blue plastic bandages and random piles of debris and organic waste show human inhabitants and their structures have begun the healing process, now two years in the making.
A proud and enthusiastic islander, Rodruiguez takes obvious pride in playing tour guide to the Caribbean’s natural wonders from the left seat of a helicopter. From up here, the water grades away from the land in every blue hue, but the sides of the volcanic hills are noticeably denuded. Their usually lush, impenetrable green blanket is still stained brown by the winds, rain and lashing waves that in September 2017 turned Rodriguez into an impromptu search-and-rescue pilot.
After a two-hour downhill slog from her home to the airport after Irma passed, Rodriguez found one of the large sliding hangar doors had blown in, but was caught by two other aircraft. The metal sheet missed one of Caribbean Buzz’s helicopters by about four inches, she said. Both of the company’s R44s and its H145 survived unscathed. Rodriguez realized the responsibility she now had, as the owner and able pilot of operational vertical-lift aircraft. She had to check on her neighbors and help however she could until outside assistance arrived.
The U.S. Coast Guard and National Guard would show up about two days later, but Rodriguez, in all three helicopters, moved people and supplies between islands for weeks on end.
“We’re really lucky because as soon as the storm was over, we hoofed it to the airport — the roads were not passable — and started flying recon to make sure people on the outer islands were OK because, oftentimes you can’t get out to those islands when there is an emergency,” Rodriguez said. “If you have an aircraft that can go where others can’t go, you have a responsibility when there’s an emergency, when there is some kind of a storm or something … it is a responsibility to us to make sure that our people and whoever we deal with are all OK.”
First stop, Anegada, a low-lying coral out-island in the British Virgin Islands about 60 miles northwest of St. Thomas. The island is famously home to Caribbean flamingos, home to fewer than 300 people whose only lifeline are boats and the Captain Auguste George International Airport. More of a landing strip, it was wrecked by floodwaters and debris when Rodriguez arrived overhead. Fixed-wing aircraft had no hope of landing until it could be cleared and repaired, she said.
“We have a lot of friends out there, know a lot of people,” she said. “We’ve been flying helicopters for over 30 years and helicopters go to remote areas. These are people that are not going to be taken care of immediately.”
To the south, at Necker Island off Virgin Gorda, Rodriguez received the all clear from employees and guests on the private island owned by Richard Branson, who is a longtime client. She and her crew also began to collect the first images the outside world would see of the scalped BVIs.
The Bitter End Yacht Club, a collection of hillside bungalows, restaurant and popular sailing mecca on Virgin Gorda, was pulled from its foundation and dashed against the hillside. Caribbean Buzz was the first to document the destruction and post the photos to social media.
No one off the island of Jost Van Dyke knew that 95 percent of it was “annihilated,” Rodriguez said.
“The first photos out of North Sound [Virgin Gorda], period, were ours. We were the first one out there to see the damage,” she said. “We were just flabbergasted and took a bunch of photos. Of course, there was no service anywhere so we had to go to San Juan.”
Every airport and airstrip in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands was destroyed or inaccessible by fixed-wing aircraft except for Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, about 80 miles due west or a 40-minute flight by helicopter. That island, not yet the poster victim of the 2017 hurricane season, was also the closest place to beam information to the wider world.
“We would fly to San Juan and bring the people and then take supplies back from San Juan,” Rodriguez said. “While in San Juan, we would send them to Charlotte [Van Heurck, a Caribbean Buzz employee], who in turn would post to social media. Any three seconds we had available, sometimes on the way to the bathroom, we’d be sending images just to get the word out because that storm was still moving. We had to make sure that anybody who could listen would listen and watch out.”
In her helicopter with her camera, Rodriguez for a while was the world’s only on scene photojournalist. Her images were snatched up and disseminated by media outlets around the world and the information she provided helped others in Irma’s path prepare for the powerful storm now hurtling toward Cuba, the Bahamas and Florida.
A couple of weeks later, recovery had just gotten underway when another category 5 storm came barreling out of the Atlantic toward the Caribbean. Still flying rescue and resupply missions, her namesake hurricane — Maria — had spun into a monster, intent on again lashing the wounded islands.
For Hurricane Maria, the Caribbean Buzz helicopters were sheltered on Puerto Rico in a reinforced outer hangar, a concrete bunker within an office space cleared enough for three helicopters to fit in a row. Without a blade-folding kit for the H145, they had to remove two blades to fit into the protected space. Puerto Rico would take the brunt of Maria’s fury. None of the exposed aircraft outside the bunker survived the storm.
“When we were done with that one, we came out of that bunker and half the planes in the hangar outside were destroyed,” she said. “We had to move all the now-defunct aircraft out of the way in order to get the helicopters out and start moving and do the whole process all over again.”
In all, Caribbean Buzz moved about 300 people in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands during rescue and cleanup efforts following the two storms. That does not include plane flights the company coordinated from Puerto Rico in partnership with local fixed-wing charter outfit MN Aviation for additional evacuations. Every flight out with passengers came back in with relief supplies, “as much as the helicopter could carry,” Rodriguez said.
“We just couldn’t stop, because there was still work to do from Irma,” she said.