One of St. John’s last-standing entrepreneurs being hailed a local hero

Ryan Sharkey doles out food at his disaster relief center in St. John after Hurricane Irma devastated the US Virgin Island.
Photo: Siobhan Mulvey

Nearly two weeks after Hurricane Irma slammed into the island of St. John at full intensity, its Category 5 winds of 185 mph destroying everything in its path, residents are still left without power and struggling to find food and shelter.

Yet miraculously, at The Dugout at 420 to Center — one of the only restaurants out of 50 on the island left standing — spirits are high.Within just a few hours after the heavy winds ripped through the Caribbean on Sept. 6, 420 to Center owner Ryan Sharkey started cooking — and he hasn't stopped since.

Using a generator and all of his own resources from his freezer, plus donations from other restaurants offering food that otherwise would have gone bad, he and his six employees have been cooking 600 meals a day for anyone who walks in. The only money he charges is for beer — $3 a bottle — so he can continue buying more food to feed the patrons free of charge.

From the moment he fired up his ovens, word began spreading, and the line for food has remained steady ever since.

The Dugout at 420 to Center on St. John after Hurricane Irma devastated the US Virgin Islands.
Photo: Siobhan Mulvey

Sharkey isn't concerned. "Once all the people are fed and everything starts to feel normal, our job will be done," said Sharkey. "It's not how long is it gonna take, it's however long it takes."

But of all the islands in the Caribbean, the damage was particularly widespread on St. John.

Cruz Bay, St. John's vibrant main town and port where 420 to Center is located, is home to most of the 28-square-mile island's restaurants, bars, stores and dive centers. Now it is an utter wasteland. There is no airport, so those coming and going must rely on ferries that connect the town with other U.S. and British Virgin Islands.

Authorities have enforced a 6 p.m. curfew for its 2,750 residents because without electricity it is too hard to navigate the small side roads after the sun goes down.

FEMA claims that about 578,000 meals, 383,000 liters of water, 13,600 sheeting covers, 150 rolls of blue tarps and 30 generators were sent to the Caribbean this week.

Sharkey and others are grateful that help from the Red Cross, FEMA and various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are starting to arrive — President Donald Trump is scheduled to visit this week — but Sharkey said that for the first four days it was up to the residents. "They got their boots on the ground a week too late," he said.

What was once a gift shop and restaurant now lays in ruins in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, on Sept. 12, 2017. Hurricane Irma's 185mph winds ripped through the island six days before.
Jessica Rinaldi | The Boston Globe | Getty Images

"Our community scrambled together in the wake of this storm and organized into recovery mode before any government or NGO aid arrived. We're talking a solid four days before even the Red Cross or FEMA showed up," said local resident Siobhan Mulvey. "We had collectively begun checking on neighbors, clearing roads and trying to embrace the fact that almost all of us make it out safely."

Mulvey, a member of the grassroots organization Love City Strong, has been working tirelessly with the relief effort. She is one of the few on the island who has Wi-Fi service.

"Hopefully power and cell service will be restored to the main part of Cruz Bay within the next month," she said, adding that full restoration won't be island-wide until at least six months.

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According to FEMA, 40 percent of small businesses never reopen their doors following a disaster. "I feel blessed," said Sharkey. Others, he said, will have to lay off their workers until their establishments are up and running again.

"Most of the restaurants down here have a staff of 20 or 30, so for those people to be out of work, it's a real bummer," he added. "It's a lot of hard work just to maintain the lifestyle and be able to stay here."

'A really special place'

Before Hurricane Irma, on any given night The Dugout at 420 to Center was packed with vacationers and locals drinking, eating and watching games on its flat-screen TVs. Now, heavily damaged from water, the eatery is still packed, this time with hungry patrons looking for a place to find shelter, eat and gather with others who share in the loss and devastation.

"Their spirits are a lot better than anybody would have ever expected. It's a really great thing. There's folks you've seen for a long time and you know their faces and you really should know their name, but you don't because you're just too busy being you. ... Now they may be homeless," said Sharkey, 40, who left the United States 10 years ago to visit a friend who lives on the island and never returned home. "It's a really special place," he said.

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Full of emotion, Sharkey described to CNBC the bonding he's witnessed over the past 10 days. "Everybody wants to help, and that's a great thing. I've heard from a couple different agencies that we should be a case study, because there's not another community in the entire world in any disaster that's come together so tightly to try to get everything rebuilt."

Until then, Sharkey believes it's important to try to stay on an even keel. "Just try to keep it normal. If you had a routine before, do your best to continue your routine. If it was a cup of coffee at a certain place and that place isn't open, do your best to get your coffee someplace else. But do not not get your coffee. Do it because that will become the norm, just as it was normal before."