A glimpse of disaster

August 21st, 2019 2:15 PM

Slow recovery: Stephen Thompson stands in the doorway of his home, 1 1/2 years after hurricanes Irma and Maria hit St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. | Photo by Michael Bracey

View All Photos (4 Photos)

By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

When natural disaster strikes, the recovery is easier for some than others. At an exhibit titled, "We the People?" at the Main Library in Oak Park, Chicago-area photographers document how the United States government responded to communities of color in the aftermath of the 2017 hurricane season. Photos document Houston, the Florida Keys, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Photographers Michael Bracey and Jim Morris became concerned upon hearing the news of the hurricanes, the way the government was reacting, and having personal connections to the Caribbean Islands — their wives are from Puerto Rico and Jamaica respectively.

"We wanted to do something," Bracey said. "We're photographers, we're not rich, so we came up with the idea to use our visual artistry."

The pair contacted the Chicago Alliance of African American Photographers where they found Crystal Wiley-Brown, who was thinking the same thing, motivated by her personal connection to St. John in the Virgin Islands.

Bracey and Morris became administrators of the project. Wiley-Brown photographed in the Virgin Islands. Bill Scott photographed in Houston. Gerard M. Evans and Don Kelly videotaped interviews with survivors. They are all African American.

"We the People?" is a three-year project. Phase One shows the destruction and the initial response.

Bracey, who traveled to all four locations from 2017 to 2018 to photograph the hurricanes' aftermath, said the first set of photos shows "how backs were turned on Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands."

Phase two, which Bracey photographed at multiple locations this year, shows rebuilding. The yet-to-be-completed Phase three will show "people in their living rooms watching TV," according to Bracey.

"Houston and Florida are back to where it was," he said. "It's not true of the islands."

While Bracey photographs, he meets people along the way and returns to hear their stories and record their rebuilding process, an idea inspired by a victim of Hurricane Harvey, which hit Houston, Texas in August 2017. 

She was afraid of water, Bracey said. That woman's admission "woke me up" and kept him awake in his hotel room that night. He wanted to go back and see her, and it gave him the idea to document the survivors' progress.

Now he recounts the story of fire station Captain Stephen Thompson who was about to retire when hurricane season hit in September 2017 on St. Thomas, where he lives.

Both Irma and Maria dealt devastating blows to the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2017. Thompson, his wife and their dogs took shelter in their bathroom for 14 hours covered by a shower curtain, according to Bracey. Their roof was torn off, but their hurricane insurance only covered the exterior of their home.

Instead of retiring, Bracey learned, Thompson now drives a taxi to afford what the couple needs on an island where everything is expensive and rebuilding takes very long due to a lack of local labor, such as roofers, and the extended length of time it takes for materials to arrive.

Bracey also met and photographed a woman whose Florida home was impacted by Hurricane Irma. A dog sitter with no home-owner's insurance, she was able to live in a FEMA-supplied trailer, telling Bracey she could keep it as long as she needed. "She is Caucasian, and her house is rebuilt," he said.

The exhibit "We the People?" runs through Aug. 30 at the Main Library Art Gallery and is open during regular library hours. More: 834 Lake St., Oak Park.