I was fortunate enough to be selected to deploy directly after Irma (Hurricane Irma was on the 6th September, I was asked to leave that afternoon, but actually left London Gatwick the morning of 7th September). Arriving in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) was like arriving in a film set; nothing was where it should be. What is known as Nature’s Little Secrets had been turned upside down. The cars were lying on their roofs, the boats scatted like toys out of an angry child’s pram, telegraph poles snapped and causing road blocks, houses destroyed and the look on sadness and fear on the faces of the local people was evident. Arriving in such devastation, not caused by war or mankind was inconceivable.
The team I was with, consisting of Serve On and Team Rubicon personnel were welcomed by so many who were overwhelmed to see some outside assistance come in to help them. Clearly, the BVIs are located in an area which can, and does have hurricanes. Up until 6 September this year, the majority of hurricanes have bypassed the BVIs, a few have had a direct hit; nothing on the same scale of Irma.
Preparedness is absolutely key to allow a community to withstand hazards such as a weather phenomenon and people do have time to prepare for them. Having spoken to so many locals in Virgin Gorda, it is clear that most hurricanes move away (usually north) before they make landfall, although do bring with them high winds and heavy rain, nothing to the extent of what was experienced this September. Irma was a totally different category and no preparedness could protect the community, let alone the vulnerable there.
Daily tasks were onerous for the majority of the population. Basic needs; food, water and shelter had been taken away from them. Bigger issues; power, communication and having fun were pushed to one side. Maria caused an enormous pause on the aid effort. We (by this stage, down to a team of three) were safe, but knowing that families were living in homes without a roofs, using a tarpaulin to keep the rain off, and scared to death (genuinely believing that they were about to die) had this ‘round 2’ hurricane so soon after Irma. It caused panic and it was feared that another Irma was going to hit the islands. It was not until Maria was upon us that we knew that it was not going to be a direct hit with the eye (or more importantly, the catastrophic eye wall which had tornadoes causing the mass destruction) as Maria took a southerly route, bypassing the BVIs by about 50km. It was still a Category 5 hurricane and really did slow the recovery effort down.
However, electricity started to return slowly. The desalination plants, although not yet working by the time I left, were almost operable and expected to be online and functioning soon after I left. The brown scenery which was stark on my arrival, was starting to turn green. The last Sunday I was there was an enforced day off; Vincent who was running the Virgin Gorda Recovery Operation Centre (VGROC) was trying to enforced Sunday as a fun-day. He was trying to get people back to the otherwise ignored beaches and bring the community together in having fun. It felt a really positive step to see a beach in use and people laughing and children playing. Interestingly enough, I was told that post disaster, people do not cycle for fun; one of the sure signs that a community is repairing is seeing bikes. By the time I left, I did see one.
Going home was tough. I felt very emotional about leaving the community that I had clearly become very close to. I was then given an opportunity to return to the Caribbean a month later, this time to Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) and then onwards to the BVIs. After writing this in TCI and having spoken to some of the locals and assisted in some aid distribution, it is clear that these islands are very much open for business as far as tourism is concerned. Indeed, you have to look hard to see the damage that Irma has caused. I feel that the honeymoon couples are oblivious to what has happened here, that they won’t scratch the surface and look at what has happened or where the population which is still without schools, still receiving aid and still needing help. But, tourism is where the money comes from and those couples walking arm in arm down the sandy white beaches are bringing the economy back and paying the Haitian workers’ wages and keeping the country going. Speaking to one local, only September and October were down on tourists numbers here in the TCIs, but December is already sold out. I only hope, but fear that this will not (yet) be the case in the BVIs and in particular in Virgin Gorda.