September 6, 2017 will forever be indelibly etched on the minds of residents of the British Virgin Islands. It was the day that life as we knew it changed irrevocably. For several days prior, we heard news about the impending hurricane but no amount of warning could prepare us for the monstrosity of Hurricane Irma, which would turn out to be the costliest ever in BVI history. From as early as August 28 when the disturbance moved into the eastern Atlantic, the Department of Disaster Management (DDM) began issuing regular updates on the approaching system. In the ensuing days, the system developed into a storm and quickly intensified into a hurricane. There was no hiding the ominous nature of the approaching tropical cyclone and the severity of its potential impact as the forecasters repeatedly described the system as powerful, extremely dangerous and potentially catastrophic.
Described then as the most intense tropical cyclone, Hurricane Irma, at peak intensity, attacked the BVI from early in the morning on September 6; her 185 mile per hour winds, gusting as high as 215 mph and relentlessly pounding the many islands and cays that make up the BVI. From Anegda in the north to Norman Island in the south, from Virgin Gorda in the east to Jost Van Dyke and Great Tobago in the west, the onslaught was unforgiving.
Many would later share stories of sheltering in bathroom cupboards, in closets, under kitchen sinks, pushing valiantly against doors, all in a desperate attempt to escape the wrath of this hurricane which obviously had a penchant for mass destruction.
Irma was not one for discrimination. She treated all with the same fervor, ripping off roofs, tearing through doors and windows, turning vehicles and containers into unidentifiable flying objects. As she indiscriminately intruded on homes and other buildings, many occupants were sent scampering for shelter. The Premier ran for cover, seeking shelter in the nearby home of the Health Minister. Staff of the DDDM, at the time manning the National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC), fled the building as Irma compromised not only the structure but also decimated the emergency communications system. Fire officers who serve the critical role of first responders were forced to flee as the roof of the main fire station was ripped from the structure. Many residents pounded on the doors of neighbours as their dismantled roofs and busted windows left them vulnerable to Irma’s onslaught.
And still she thundered, like a ferocious beast fighting off aggressors, she raged until her dominance was indisputable. After more than 12 hours of a lopsided battle, the verdict was unanimous. Hurricane Irma, whether intentionally or inadvertently, had delivered a knockout punch.
The BVI, a territory of 60 islands and cays with an estimated population of about 30,000 was left battered and bruised; reeling from the assault of the second strongest hurricane in the Atlantic. The magnitude of the storm and the velocity of its winds left forecasters doubtful about survival rates but only four persons in the BVI met their demise at the hands of Irma although many sustained injuries. One life lost is one too many but given the extent of the devastation, four casualties is nothing short of a miracle.
The immediate aftermath was simply mind-boggling. According to the Situation Report compiled by the NEOC, “Initial assessment reports recorded widespread damage to the road infrastructure, housing stock, ports, telecommunications, electrical and water infrastructure as well as critical facilities including the Department of Disaster Management which houses the National Emergency Operations Centre.”
The BVI experienced a full blackout as the electricity infrastructure which facilitated generation, transmission and distribution was severely damaged. The water distribution network was non-functional due to lack of electricity. The telecommunications network was also hit hard. Of the three cellular networks in the BVI, one was non-functional in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma, another had service only in the capital and the third had sporadic coverage across the Territory. Communications equipment in the tower at the airport was destroyed, forcing a suspension of commercial flights, with permission to land only being granted to emergency and relief flights. Luckily, despite damage to its main warehouse, the cargo port, Port Purcell remained operational and was immediately available to receive vessels. The prison structure was severely compromised, the main fire and police stations severely damaged. Hundreds of vehicles were smashed and some roads were impassable.
The list of impact goes on and on. In short, the BVI was decimated. Premier and Minister of Finance Dr. D. Orlando Smith, OBE estimated that the damage caused by Irma to be $3.6 billion, more than three times the size of the Territory’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
As if the devastation of Irma was not enough, one day shy of two weeks later, the BVI was faced with another threat, believe it or not, another category 5 system. With so much of the housing stock compromised and many living without roofs, doors and windows, it was inconceivable that residents of the BVI could face anything worse. Already consumed with trying to recover from experiencing near total annihilation, the people of the BVI were plunged into preparation mode again, bracing for the onslaught of not just another hurricane but one that was record making in its own right. Hurricane Maria, though small, was the most intense system in the Atlantic basin, with barometric pressure at 908 millibars, the lowest ever recorded. What are the odds! Granted, it was not the first time the BVI faced a double-whammy. In 1995, hurricanes Luis and Marilyn affected the BVI on September 6 and 15 respectively and in 1999, Jose and Lenny struck within one month of each other but the amount of damage was nowhere near the 2017 figure.
Hurricane Maria, which surpassed Irma in terms of intensity, impacted the BVI on September 19-20. With maximum sustained winds of 175 mph, Maria moved slowly, at just 10 mph and dumped eight inches of rain on the BVI. Given the amount of debris generated by Irma just weeks before, there was the additional risk of these objects becoming flying missiles. Thankfully, the BVI recorded no further deaths and additional damage to buildings was minimal.
The full story told, it was an unprecedented trio that impacted the BVI in 2017, starting with the floods of August 7-8 when a tropical wave dumped 14.78 inches of rain on the BVI in less than 24 hours. The floods affected 400 households and 41 businesses causing an estimated $7.7 million in damage.
How does the BVI even begin to recover from the cumulative impact of this trio of events? When will the BVI rise again? The names Irma and Maria will be retired by the National Hurricane Centre because of their level of impact but there is no quick fix for the widespread devastation left in their wake. The road to recovery will be a long, hard one that must promote partnership and collaboration. Many have responded and are continuing to support relief and recovery efforts. Assistance has come from regional neighbours and from organisations such as the Caribbean Disaster Management Agency, Caribbean Electric Utility Services Corporation (CARILEC) and its many members, the Pan American Health Organisation, Convoy of Hope, United Nations agencies including UNICEF, UNDP and ECLAC and of course, the United Kingdom. Local partners like BVI Red Cross, the Rotary clubs, telecommunications companies and banks are also doing their part and lending full support to the recovery process. Add to this, the indomitable spirit of many residents and there should be unwavering confidence that the BVI will recover.
Three months later, individual situations may be less than ideal but collectively, many glimmers of hope surround us – electricity is being restored at a rapid pace, airport and ferry services have resumed, potable water is once again available in many communities, schools have re-opened, the telecommunications network is being rebuilt, supermarket shelves are stocked and banks are operational. The BVI has been battered but it is definitely not broken. We are down but we are not out. We are BVI Strong!