A total of 170 evacuees have arrived in Cayman in the wake of Hurricane Irma and more are anticipated as a result of Hurricane Maria which this week pounded a number of eastern Caribbean Islands, territories that were already reeling from catastrophic storm damage.
As a category 4 hurricane, Maria devastated Puerto Rico Wednesday. It was downgraded to a category 3 as it bore down on the north coast of the Dominican Republic Thursday. Hurricane warnings were in place in the Dominican Republic, Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas on Thursday.
The number of hurricane evacuees in Cayman, confirmed by senior immigration officials Thursday, includes displaced workers, their spouses and children.
Immigration Department administrators said the evacuees are mainly workers whose financial services firms have had to shift operations temporarily because offices in their home country were destroyed or unusable.
Many of the same companies operating in the British Virgin Islands and the Bahamas have offices in Cayman. The Immigration Department, working alongside those firms, has set up a temporary residence process for the displaced employees.
Acting Chief Immigration Officer Bruce Smith said 33 financial services firms have requested temporary relocation for employees thus far as a result of Hurricane Irma. “[There are] three firms from the Bahamas, one from Miami, with the majority of requests coming primarily from the British Virgin Islands,” Mr. Smith said.
He said the foreign financial services workers are being allowed in as visitors on a 60-day pass “without any need for a work permit.”
However, Premier Alden McLaughlin, who is the minister responsible for immigration, cautioned that Cayman is likely in for a longer haul when it comes to assisting Irma/Maria evacuees.
“There remains a substantial risk that the region may be impacted further by additional tropical cyclones,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “We expect … that locally registered financial services companies will require our support to facilitate the relocation of their staff for short periods of time in some instances, while others may require relocation for several months.”
The new arrivals will be allowed to provide services only to their overseas clients. If they stay beyond the 60-day visitor permission, they will have to be processed for temporary work permits, typically for three to six months, immigration officials said.
“Temporary work permits will be processed as a means to regularize staff working remotely for only short periods once their initial landing permissions have expired,” Mr. Smith said. “Given the extent of the devastation in the territories, and in the event impact from additional storms does occur during this season, companies will require our continued support to facilitate the reallocation of staff for longer periods.”
Any longer-term work permits for the evacuees will have to go through the normal process, subject to Cayman Islands Immigration Law requirements.
The displaced workers, who in some cases have brought their families and their pets, are being assisted by their employers in finding places to stay, but they are doing so in the tightest rental market Cayman has seen in a decade.
RE/MAX agent Jennifer Powell said a number of real estate firms are helping out by acting as go-betweens for storm evacuees and their employers and local landlords who, in many cases, do not use agents to advertise their properties.
“All of the rentals that are available right now are owner-managed,” Ms. Powell said. “I send [apartment-seekers] what’s available and give them a little script about how to approach a property manager. There’s hardly anyone left who is willing to do short-term leases.”
Most agents registered with the Cayman Islands Real Estate Brokers Association are suggesting renters and landlords come to agreement on 12-month leases that contain some kind of “break” clause that takes effect if the renter goes back home during the lease period. In reality, Ms. Powell said, it is unlikely that most of the displaced workers will be able to return within the 60-day “visitor” period set out by immigration.
“It’s going to be at least four to six months, based on what we’ve heard of the damage in the BVI,” she said.
In addition to the already tight rental market, most financial services firms are staffing up for their busiest time of year, around Oct. 1. The tourism high-season starts in December, and a significant number of seasonal workers are typically brought in around that time. All of those workers are entering an already glutted rental market on Grand Cayman.
With a scarity of places to stay, many displaced workers are staying with their new coworkers in Cayman.
“Partners are putting people up in their houses … If someone has a spare room, they offer it,” said PricewaterhouseCoopers Director Chris Bailey. “And then, other companies have just borne the cost of accommodations to make people happy and as secure as possible.”
Employees from PwC and other firms in Cayman have also donated their spare clothes, toys, toiletries and other supplies for the incoming displaced workers.
Dart Enterprises allowed the firms to use an open unit at Camana Bay, where incoming hurricane evacuees can go and pick up those supplies between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily. Mr. Bailey said the initiative has so far helped more than 50 families and individuals who came here “with pretty much nothing.”
Former BVI resident Clare Chilton, her husband, and her 7-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son, are among those who have been helped.
“We’re starting again, so this has been really helpful,” she said. “We had to leave everything behind.” Mr. Bailey said the donation center will be open through this weekend.