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U.S. Virgin Islands Nonprofit Helps Community Focus on Disaster Recovery and Resiliency

Enclosed farm stand with two open windows in a grassy area.
Customers at an enclosed farm stand with produce displayed.
Rooftops of several neighboring structures equipped with solar panels.
Workers installing solar panels on a roof.
An empty theater with an unfinished roof undergoing renovation.


Home > Case Studies > U.S. Virgin Islands Nonprofit Helps Community Focus on Disaster Recovery and Resiliency


U.S. Virgin Islands Nonprofit Helps Community Focus on Disaster Recovery and Resiliency


Major hurricanes periodically batter the U.S. Virgin Islands, a U.S. territory in the Caribbean with a population of approximately 87,000. The nonprofit St. Croix Foundation for Community Development, founded in 1990 in response to the devastation Hurricane Hugo wreaked on the islands, set out to address the social and economic challenges left in the wake of the massive storm. The foundation has used a holistic approach to help St. Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands with about 40,000 residents, recover from subsequent disasters and prepare for future catastrophic events. In 2022, the foundation won a HUD Secretary’s Award for Public-Philanthropic Partnerships for its efforts to support a vulnerable population through unconventional means.

Rebuilding an Island

Faced with limited government support in the wake of Hurricane Hugo, residents of St. Croix, where the Category 4 storm had destroyed or damaged more than 90 percent of the island’s structures, formed the St. Croix Foundation. In addition to helping the community recover from Hugo and subsequent natural disasters, the grassroots organization embraced a broader goal of addressing the island’s economic and social hardships. Deanna James, the foundation’s president, believes that place-based nonprofits such as the St. Croix Foundation play a vital role in high-need areas with no local government, stating, “We recognize that, in communities that are marginalized like ours, social infrastructure and the health of the third sector are critically important to the resilience and health of the community."

In 1998, the St. Croix Foundation became the court-appointed receiver of seven abandoned buildings in the historic district of Christiansted, St. Croix’s largest town. These properties surround downtown’s once-thriving Sunday Market Square, one of the first planned public squares in the United States. At the time of acquisition, the foundation lacked funding to fully rehabilitate the dilapidated structures, although it was able to prevent further deterioration. In subsequent years, however, the foundation began repurposing these buildings into housing, retail, and nonprofit workspaces as part of its holistic community development strategy.

Another Catastrophic Storm

Hurricane Maria hit St. Croix and the surrounding islands in 2017. Although Maria’s impact was less devastating than Hugo’s, the storm caused extensive damage throughout the island and left many residents unemployed and homeless. James said that, as happened in the aftermath of Hugo, St. Croix received less attention during recovery efforts than more populous areas did. Having recently established relationships with other nonprofit service providers and philanthropic entities, the St. Croix Foundation was well positioned to help the community rebuild in the wake of the storm while making the community more sustainable and resilient to future crises fueled by climate change. Collaborating with its partner organizations, the foundation launched a series of “community resilience hubs” that include two newly solarized community centers, seven food stands for farmers, and an upcoming multipurpose theater that will also serve as a disaster recovery center.

Solarization and Workforce Development

The foundation completed the solarization of two community centers — the Caribbean Center for Boys & Girls of the Virgin Islands, an educational and workforce development center for youth and adults, and Flamboyant Gardens Senior Center, an independent living community for older adults — in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Young adults participating in a workforce training program funded by the Virgin Islands Department of Labor installed the solar panels, and within a few months of the projects’ completion, all the newly trained participants were fully employed in the field.


As part of its effort to help small agribusinesses recover and grow following Hurricane Maria, the foundation launched the Farm-Tienda Grant & Pilot Program. With funding from Coca-Cola and philanthropic partners, the foundation provided food stands, or farm-tiendas, to local farmers that will act as micro resiliency hubs in isolated and vulnerable neighborhoods. Farmers can sell produce from durable steel structures that are similar in appearance to shipping containers and are equipped with potable water, Wi-Fi, and solar panels. To date, the foundation and its partners have provided farm-tiendas to seven farmers who were selected by a community advisory group based on their level of need and location.

A Community Shelter

In 2019, the Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded the St. Croix Foundation a $12.5 million Hazard Mitigation grant to repurpose the abandoned Alexander Theater in Sunday Market Square as a hurricane-ready facility that will serve as a shelter during major storms. This once-popular movie theater had been closed for decades. Because the structure is buttressed by neighboring buildings and has no windows, it is an ideal shelter during disasters. At other times, the building will serve as a performing arts center.

Noting that previous hurricanes severely damaged or destroyed homes, James explained that St. Croix residents also needed a safe place to reside for more than a few days after hurricanes strike. Leveraging additional funds, including a Community Development Block Grant Mitigation grant from HUD, the foundation is adding bedrooms, bathrooms, and other features that are necessary for the theater to serve as an extended stay shelter. Once completed, the Alexander Theater will be the territory’s largest disaster shelter. In addition, the foundation signed a long-term lease with a local business owner whose nearly 50-year-old restaurant will reopen on the shelter’s first floor. The restaurant’s large kitchen will support shelter residents and others. Construction is slated to begin by early 2025.

Enduring a Pandemic

James believes that the performance of these initiatives during the COVID-19 pandemic indicates their potential for broader success. “We didn’t know that the next ‘storm’ was going to be a pandemic, yet every single one of those initiatives performed exceptionally during COVID,” James said. The farm-tiendas were safe places for residents to pick up groceries without visiting crowded stores. In some cases, customers could pick up their groceries without leaving their cars. The Caribbean Center for Boys & Girls, solarized shortly before the pandemic, played a vital role in the wake of school closures following Maria and the pandemic. Furthermore, the Alexander Theater’s designation as a community shelter will free up the public school buildings that previously were used as shelters following major storms.

Future Community Development Efforts

The St. Croix Foundation and other organizations continue to advance community building initiatives. As part of Sunday Market Square’s $25 million redevelopment, the foundation has transformed some of its other properties in Sunday Market Square into low- and moderate-income apartments, nonprofit coworking spaces, and other community-serving projects. Although the foundation foresees other improvements in the historic district, James explained that the community development process is more important than the resulting projects and that stakeholders must balance any economic gains for St. Croix with its recovery needs. “We are taking our time with how we [promote development] to make sure that we’re not contributing to gentrification or the loss of assets of underserved Black families,” said James. As residents continue to recover and rebuild their homes 7 years after Maria struck, James said that the foundation’s steadfast priority is to ensure that people’s basic needs are met.

This article was written by Sage Computing, Inc, under contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.