By Peter Fischetti
Fifteen hundred miles southeast of Panama City Beach are the U.S. Virgin Islands. Both places are magnets for tourism that rightly claim some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. What they also have in common, unfortunately, is a familiarity with Category 5 hurricanes. And while the Emerald Coast has largely recovered almost three years later, the impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria almost five years ago is still felt in the Virgin Islands, including tiny St. John.
Robin Swank, who now lives in Panama City Beach, and her husband, Larry Boxerman, were among the victims of Irma and Maria. “Our house blew away, and we were in it,” she recalled. St. John had been their home since they left a New York City suburb in 2000. The couple had been enjoying retirement in the warmth of the Caribbean when Irma and Maria arrived, and so they relocated to Panama City Beach, to be close to their son, Jason, and his family.
The one-two punch from Irma and then Maria destroyed many historic island buildings. One that survived but suffered serious damage was the Sprauve Public Library, built as an estate in 1790.
Sprauve, the only public library on St. John, has been open only sporadically since the two hurricanes, Robin said. It is currently closed with no reopening date. While the Virgin Islands has a high English literacy rate, books have been hard to come by since the hurricanes due to the decline in tourists, who would leave books when they visited the islands. And, as in the United States, remote learning due to COVID has impacted the access to books for school-age children.
What’s left is a box, where residents are encouraged to leave a book they’ve read and then take one that's in that box. “The island has a culture of ‘leave one, take one,’” Robin explained. But recently, the free library box has only six books—and none for the 500 or so school-age children on the island.
With that in mind, she hopes to collect children's books, and with the help of her St. John Book Club, place book boxes around the island and fill them with donated books solely for children. The grade range is pre-kindergarten through high school, and the books should be in good condition. Robin is a member of the Panama City Beach Senior Center, where the books can be dropped off Monday through Friday. The location is 423 Lyndell Lane. For more information, call Sue at 850-233-5070.
Peter Fischetti is a retired journalist living in Panama City Beach.
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