NEW YORK (CBSNewYork)Hurricane Irma not only destroyed homes and lives across the Caribbean, it also wiped out the region’s economic lifeline: tourism.

CBS2’s Jessica Moore spoke with people who say that when the catastrophic storm hit, their paradise was lost.

The sparkling blue waters and lush vegetation of St. John have been drawing luxury travelers for years, until Irma ravaged the island last week.

“Once you see pictures of houses completely gone, cars flipped over, boats on top of houses, dead animals on top of houses, you realize ‘wow, this is the worst thing that could’ve happened’,” Airbnb owner David Cutler said. “It’s really, really, really bad.”

‘This Is A Horrific Disaster’: U.S. Virgin Islands Face Massive Recovery Effort After Hurricane Irma

Cutler rents a home through Airbnb on St. John, where tourism dollars represent the lifeblood of the local economy. The critical financial reservoir is now almost completely cut off.

Jordan McArthur is one of thousands of people whose dreams of a tropical vacation were crushed when Irma rolled in. He and his wife had a three day cruise to the Bahamas planned.

“We had been looking to this vacation for a long time, so we were disappointed. But outweighing that was a sense of dread and empathy for the people in Florida and Caribbean and Bahamas,” McArthur told CBS2 in an interview on Skype.

It’s a sense of empathy and compassion Cutler says he’s seen ever since the storm hit and the cancellations started pouring in.

“I haven’t gotten anyone pushing for a refund, but we’ve had multiple cancellations already because you can’t get to the island anytime in the near future. It’s in a state of emergency,” Cutler said.

Tourism Commissioner for the U.S. Virgin Islands Beverly Nicholson-Doty tells CBS2 that everyone is doing their part to ease the burden on travelers and the people of St. John and St. Thomas.

Many hotels and airlines are offering refunds and waiving cancellation fees, while several cruise lines are sending ships to shuttle evacuees to Miami and Puerto Rico.

Airlines like Jet Blue and and Delta are flying “mercy flights” to rescue the sick and elderly trapped in Irma’s wake.

Commissioner Nicholson-Doty is now encouraging tourists to discover St. Croix, the only one U.S. Virgin Island left virtually untouched.

“This is a real opportunity for people who haven’t been to visit St. Croix, and if it’s your first time we assure you you will not be disappointed,” she said. “St. Thomas and St. John are down right now, but we’re not out and we’re going to come back better than ever.”

The tourism department encourages all tourists to contact their hotels and airlines directly to avoid change and cancellation fees.

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