British Virgin Islands looks like ‘a large bomb’ went off

Governor’s aide gives first-hand account of hurricane damage

A continued foreign police and military presence will be maintained in the British Virgin Islands, including a contingent of Cayman Islands police officers, as U.K. and local officials try to get the storm-ravaged territory back on its feet, Cayman Islands Governor’s Office Chief of Staff Matthew Forbes told the Cayman Compass on his return from a two-week foreign office mission in the BVI.

During this mission, Mr. Forbes was stationed in the main government building in Road Town, the BVI capital, with dozens of other British government officials, U.K. police officers and military personnel. “I slept on the floor of the government house for two weeks … we had power for some of it,” he said.

The 16 visiting Royal Cayman Islands Police Service officers stayed in what would normally have been enticing accommodations in a waterfront hotel. In this case, however, the lights did not work and the roof was leaky.

It did not slow down the RCIPS officers, who, along with British police and military personnel, conducted a raid to “take back” the main prison facility. The same group of RCIPS officers arrested seven suspected looters at an electronics store in the hours after Hurricane Maria hit the islands – the second major storm to affect the BVI in September.

Efforts to maintain security and rebuild will be a months-long endeavour, Mr. Forbes said.

RCIPS constables Stephen Shaw and Bin Malcolm, left, in Road Town, BVI, assisted other officers with security efforts over the past three weeks.

“It looked like a very large bomb had gone off,” he said of the eastern Caribbean territory. “The BVI used to be very green and now it’s all very brown.”

At least half of all buildings in the British Virgin Islands were seriously damaged by Hurricane Irma, and in some neighborhoods as many as 95 percent.

Between 100 and 120 prisoners who were temporarily free from the islands’ main prison have been recaptured and re-incarcerated, thanks in part to the visiting RCIPS team.

Hurricane-force winds picked up sailboats and tossed them into buildings, cars were crushed under metal containers, power and water supplies were initially scarce, even nonexistent in some areas.

The prisoners got out after Hurricane Irma’s winds damaged the perimeter fence. At present, the prison has electricity and is housing them again, Mr. Forbes said. On the streets, the U.K. police and military presence, assisted by officers from Cayman and Bermuda, have temporarily made up the gap in local police officers, not all of whom repored for duty immediately after Irma. Mr. Forbes said the local officers were not deserting the force, and that many of them came back after making sure their families were safe.

“If you’ve got a wife and kids at home, you’re probably going to look after them first,” Mr. Forbes said. “Anybody is going to try and secure their family. It’s just human nature.”

There was an orderly transition under way in local law enforcement by the time he left on Saturday, he said. However, it’s expected that another team of RCIPS officers will be sent to the territory later this week to replace the one that, by then, will have been in the storm-stricken BVI for three weeks. Six police officers from Bermuda are also on the ground, along with dozens of British officers and additional military personnel.

A sailboat now sits at the front of this restaurant in the British Virgin Islands. The territory is still struggling to recover from the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Mr. Forbes said he is not sure what the BVI would have done if not for the initial military and police assistance from the U.K. and the surrounding region.

“What I found impressive about the whole thing was the amount of military services the U.K. threw at the islands,” he said, which included the RFA Mounts Bay and the HMS Ocean helicopter transport carrier, the largest British ship in the Caribbean. “There were helicopters flying all over the place.”

The troops and officers seemed to get quite a warm reception as well. “Everybody was coming up and waving to them and saying thank you. When the military officers or police were out on the streets, people would all come around and honk their horns. To see that level of policing … I think it reassured people.”

Despite all the assistance, Mr. Forbes admits there were some nervous moments in the days before Hurricane Maria struck the BVI. Fortunately, it was a glancing blow, with some hurricane-force winds but mostly just heavy rain. He doubts the islands would have safely withstood another direct hit from another major hurricane after the destruction caused by Irma.

Now, power is being restored and the water osmosis plant is back in operation, Mr. Forbes said. Though many places are still without power and running water, he said some of the grocery stores have reopened and there are long lines at the shops. Some of the infrastructure problems will persist for months or even years, but Mr. Forbes expects a rebuilding effort will take place – perhaps recalling the Cayman Islands in the wake of 2004’s Hurricane Ivan.

“I think it’ll bounce back. It’ll take a while,” he said, “but the people there are resilient.”

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