ST. THOMAS, Virgin Islands — A trip along the winding mountain countryside in Saint Thomas reveals scenes that are not scattered across network news shows anymore.
Tarps cover the homes of people fortunate enough to have a promise of federal aid. Music equipment that used to amplify voices from a Sunday morning choir dangles from a church ceiling. A visitor can look straight through it, like a dollhouse. Vehicles with drowned engines remain parked along random roadways, power lines are entangled and personal belonging are piled up waiting for pickup.
“A lot of people lost everything, like me,” said Kenneth Turnbull, softly kicking a piece of plywood from in front of his multi-unit childhood home. “I lost everything out of my home.”
So for many on the island, Home Depot’s decision to destroy its entire stock of merchandise following Hurricanes Irma and Maria — rather than give it to those in need — seemed especially cruel.
The company crushed one million pounds worth of goods, according to Waste Management records obtained by Channel 2 Action News. They were sent to a local landfill and claimed on the company's insurance — rather than sorted for hurricane survivors.
The company doesn't dispute the destruction but, citing liability concerns, insisted to Channel 2 Action News that no other options were available.
“That was the easiest thing to do.” said Turnbull. “Was it the best thing? No. I don’t think it was the best thing.”
Like everything else on this Caribbean island, Home Depot’s St. Thomas store sustained major damage after Hurricanes Irma and Maria ravaged the island last September. Ten HVAC systems were ripped from the rooftop, the material covering the roof was soaked and some merchandise sustained major water damage.
But a post-hurricane photo taken behind the store began circulating on Facebook last fall. It showed a dock full of products that appeared to be in good condition, and wrapped in plastic.
“I was like, ‘They can’t be throwing that away can they?’” remembered Brian O’Connor, a reporter with the U.S. Virgin Islands Daily News. “This has got to be a weird Facebook rumor.”
The merchandise headed straight to the Bovoni Landfill, a space under scrutiny by the federal government for years because of its inability to manage waste.
"Too much truckload to even count," one landfill employee who saw the home building materials being trucked in told Channel 2's Nicole Carr.
Home Depot agreed to crush the inventory, according to records from the Virgin Islands Waste Management Authority, and haul it to the landfill over several days in November. The cost? $25,000.
During a December trip to the island, landfill employees told Channel 2 Action News that people in need of the material had no idea it was set to be crushed — until it was too late.
“Home Depot actually destroyed the goods before it coming to us on the landfill,” the landfill employee said. “They cut the power cords. They demolished all the goods, so nothing was usable.”
A spokesman for Home Depot told Channel 2 Action News that the company had no choice. Because of pressure to re-open the store, it never took the time to sort out the good merchandise from the damaged merchandise. Instead, Home Depot filed insurance claims, but never met its $100 million deductible, essentially eating the loss. Liability issues, such as mold, presented a problem, the spokesman said.
"First and foremost, we could not sell or donate product we weren't certain was safe, but we also had vendor agreements, legal, logistical and insurance issues that left us with no other option than to dispose of the store's inventory," the company said in a statement to Channel 2 Action News. "Fortunately, we've been able to support the communities hit by the storms in many other ways."
That explanation didn’t wash with Turnbull.
“Let’s be realistic,” said Turnbull. “How can you have a liability for a toilet? A toilet is a porcelain item that can be bleached. “
A video posted to Twitter in the wake of the storm shows a man screaming at a Home Depot representative over a lack of supplies.
“You’re Home Depot (expletive). You have all the material necessary to fix Home Depot!”
In a public post, a St. Thomas law firm asked if Home Depot could have used a local Good Samaritan statute to shield itself from liability claims. The company did not answer that question in response to Channel 2 Action News, but noted similar dumps have occurred after natural disasters in Joplin, Mo., and New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
O’Connor, who’s reported extensively on the disaster for the local newspaper, said other corporations handled recovery efforts differently.
“Walgreens, for example, they had a lot of inventory that found its way into the hands of the Salvation Army,” said O’Connor.
O’Connor also described how cell phone companies waived fees, and big box stores gave away clothing.
Home Depot’s spokesman Stephen Emmett said that the company flew planes in to assist store employees sometime after the storm.
The St. Thomas store eventually re-opened in October, but during the December visit, residents noted much-needed materials were in high demand and disappeared from store shelves more quickly than they could be re-stocked.
Today, the foot traffic in the St. Thomas Disaster Recovery Center, which houses FEMA and SBA, is nearly 200 people a day. Personnel encourage residents to submit applications and see what assistance is available free of charge.
Supplies are a big concern, as the U.S. Virgin Islands compete with Puerto Rico for federal resources based on population, said Newton Tang, a FEMA Branch Director in Saint Thomas and St. John.
“It’s kind of hard to go to Home Depot here on the island and ask for you know, rolls of plastic sheeting, and so we are providing that free of charge for anyone who is interested,” said Tang.
About 90 percent of the buildings on the U.S. Virgin Islands were destroyed or damaged, amounting to about $2.4 billion in total damage, from the two 2017 hurricanes.
“I think there is a broad understanding that this (recovery) is going be years, possibly decades,” noted Patricia Lord, the recovery center’s manager and St. Thomas native. “You know, people leave. So there’s that to deal with.”
O’Connor believes he’s in the middle of covering a largely untold story.
“I’ve run out of creative ways to describe it to family members who don’t live here,” laughs O’Connor, uneasily. “It’s (like) everything’s gone horribly wrong.”
Cox Media Group