Following a month spent helping restore basic services to the hurricane-ravaged British Virgin Islands, Danielle Coleman of Hazard Management Cayman Islands says full recovery is likely to take more than a year.
The British Overseas Territory was hit in September by Category 5 hurricanes Irma and Maria, leaving local infrastructure devastated, most housing destroyed, electricity and running water supplies wrecked, and even law and order badly compromised.
Residents said that anything Irma had not ruined, Maria did: “Irma did a lot of damage but, for me, Maria finished the job,” Tortola resident Karon Brown, 29, told U.K.’s The Guardian newspaper.
“We already had flooding inside the house and lost most of our possessions in Irma,” she said. “Before Maria came, we boarded the house up and tried to secure what remained. But Maria just ripped it all off, damaged the building more and destroyed most of what was left.”
Into this, Cayman Islands authorities sent teams of police, as well as Red Cross and Hazard Management Cayman Islands crews, to offer relief. Ms. Coleman, HMCI’s deputy director of preparedness and planning, arrived just after Maria, working with the Red Cross, themselves collaborating with the BVI Department of Disaster Management.
“It’s hard to imagine, but the impact of Irma on BVI, compared to Ivan on the Cayman Islands, was undoubtedly more severe,” Ms. Coleman said. “Whilst in BVI, there was little storm surge, the significantly stronger winds [sustained winds of 180 miles per hour inside the hurricane, with higher gusts] caused more structural damage.
“Most roofs were breached, roads severely damaged, vehicles and boats smashed, and the majority of utility poles destroyed. A large number of persons have been displaced and many of them have been laid off from their work due to lack of business.”
“In the month I was there, I don’t think I saw a single house that had been spared. At the very least, houses had shattered windows; at worst, the whole structure had been destroyed,” she said.
Ms. Coleman said she had visited much of the rural interior of Tortola and three BVI Sister Islands, finding significant damage likely to require tremendous recovery efforts.
“We visited most of the areas in Tortola that we could access, and also the Sister Islands of Jost Van Dyke, Anegada and Virgin Gorda,” she said. “We were assigned three main areas to focus on by the National Disaster Management Office [Department of Disaster Management] and much of our distribution was to the most vulnerable persons in these areas.
“However, the BVI Red Cross Office was also set up as a distribution point so people who needed relief stock would come to BVI Headquarters, Road Town, get assessed by Red Cross volunteers and [receive] relief items if they qualified for it. Assessment questions included level of income/significant damage to homes/single headed households/disabilities, etc.”
Storm damage in the interior, she said, was “substantially” worse than in the capital: “Significant work has been done to get Road Town up and running. However, there are a number of other areas that haven’t had the same amount of attention.
“This is natural, of course, as Road Town, being the central commercial area, needs to be functioning in order to respond effectively to other areas. Like everywhere, Road Town was severely impacted after Irma/Maria, but progress is being made every day to get it up and running again.”
She said most of the utility poles had been destroyed and Road Town’s Red Cross headquarters had only gained power and water about 10 days ago – about five weeks after the passing of Irma.
She estimated approximately 13 official shelters operate in the territory, in addition to “a number of unofficial shelters,” and that when she left last week, “approximately 90 people [remained] in emergency shelters in Tortola.”
“Some shelters are still housing people and many roofs are still open to the elements. Suffice to say, there is a long road ahead for the recovery efforts across BVI,” Ms. Coleman said.
“One of our focuses at Red Cross was to assist shelterees in getting back home, providing relief supplies to them to ensure they could live in their homes comfortably.”
She helped distribute a thousand sets of domestic necessities, including kitchen sets, cleaning kits, tarpaulins, jerricans, mosquito nets and spray, buckets and blankets.
“As with Ivan, Hurricanes Irma and Maria have been a big equalizer,” Ms. Coleman said. “Everyone living in BVI has been significantly affected, having lost many of their worldly possessions.
“We also had items donated that we distributed including dignity kits, diapers for babies and adults, batteries and a number of other items. Clothes were being donated by the truck full on a regular occasion.”
“Dignity kits,” conceived in 2001 by the U.N. Population Fund, largely address women’s needs for non-food items, such as underwear, sanitary napkins, soap, toothbrushes and towels, intended to make an impact, according to the U.N., “on the dignity, health, education, mobility, community involvement, family functioning, economic participation, and security of women and girls.”
Recovery, Ms. Coleman said, would require sustained effort and time: “Due to the significant infrastructure damage, there is a long road to recovery, however, assuming the momentum stays the way it is now, approximately 1 to 1.5 years,” she said, acknowledging her estimate was a best guess.
Premier Alden McLaughlin praised Ms. Coleman’s role in BVI. “I am very proud of the crucial part that Ms. Coleman and the RCIPS played in BVI when they needed help the most,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “They are a shining example of the willingness of our people to step up and do whatever we can to alleviate the difficult and sometimes desperate circumstances that are wrought by a major storm.”
He praised HMCI Director McLeary Frederick, the RCIPS helicopter team, the medical personnel “and all the other civil and public servants who have played an essential role in our humanitarian work in our sister territories.”