The troubles in Puerto Rico are far better known. That island is facing a humanitarian catastrophe following the flooding and destruction from Maria. A debt crisis has left the government so badly strained that it effectively declared bankruptcy in May.
But on a per-capita basis, the often out-of-sight, out-of-mind Virgin Islands carry more debt than Puerto Rico. Wall Street analysts have warned that the territory may be unable to pay back the nearly $2 billion it owes creditors and keep up with billions more in payments it is required to make into a pension system that is projected to be insolvent in less than six years.
“We believe there is a large chance they will default,” said David Hitchcock, an analyst with Standard & Poor’s, which has said it plans to withdraw its ratings of the Virgin Islands — already at a level considered junk by investors — by October because the government has stopped providing it with basic information on its cash flow and financial outlook.
Governor Mapp said in an interview this week that the territory had already made its bond payment due next month and was not in danger of default or bankruptcy, which would have to be authorized by Congress, similar to what happened with Puerto Rico. He said his administration has been working with Wall Street to try to borrow additional funding, but no deals have come together yet.
“I’m not an economist, so I don’t want to sort of say to you it’s going to be all fine. It’s not going to be all fine,” Mr. Mapp said. The government — the territory’s largest employer — had been able to pay its employees since the hurricanes and would do so again this week, he said. But beyond that, he offered no guarantees. His priority, he said, was making sure critically ill patients got out of the two damaged hospitals.
He asked that Washington remember “the forgotten Americans” in the territories. “We are no different than Americans anywhere else,” he said.
Tourism is not only the livelihood for many Virgin Islanders, it provides a third of the local gross domestic product — a revenue stream the local government cannot afford to live without.
A vicious cycle of financial mismanagement, combined with other factors like the loss of one-tenth of the islands’ population since 2008, were hampering the Virgin Islands even as the rest of the country bounced back from the Great Recession.
Basic government functions have suffered neglect for years. The government has shortchanged the hospitals of the funding they are supposed to receive. And that has caused the hospitals to fall behind on payments to entities like the local water and power authority, which has raised rates so high on customers that they pay three times as much as the average in the states. Compounding the financial stress, the federal government caps the amount of money it provides the territories for Medicaid.
“I’m so at a loss right now and really trying to hold it together because we were on the brink before this, in terms of our finances,” Representative Stacey Plaskett, the Virgin Islands delegate to Congress, said in an interview. Ms. Plaskett, like other territorial delegates, cannot vote.
After Irma hit three weeks ago, aid was slow to trickle into St. Thomas and St. John. When military, law enforcement and emergency medical workers finally did begin to settle in, they were forced to pull out as Maria approached, taking the semblance of safety and order they brought with them.
“What it did was send everybody back into shock,” James Smith of St. Thomas, a ferry operator, said of Maria. Many people like him shared a similar reaction now that a week has passed: While the initial shock has worn off, the trauma lingers. “I hear my shutters rattle at night, and I get excited,” Mr. Smith added.
One of the businesses hit badly by the storm was the marine industry. Harbors are littered with ferries that capsized or were washed ashore, leaving fewer vessels to carry supplies back and forth. Masts from sunken sailboats jut out of the water. Charter boats, a big economic driver, lie on beaches, their hulls ripped open.
Reinforcing the sense of despair, St. Croix was hit especially hard by Maria after being spared the worst of Irma’s ferocity. And what had been a staging ground there for relief operations for St. Thomas and St. John was suddenly thrown into a state of emergency.
A week after Maria blew through, the recovery efforts were still lumbering to get off the ground. Power lines sit in tangled piles on the side of the road. Some droop down from broken poles and slap the windshields of cars as they pass by. Houses have been knocked from their foundations and rest precariously on steep hillsides. Piles of garbage grow larger and more fetid by the day, rotting in the tropical sun.