BVI still reeling from 2017 hurricane season

Linesmen work on April 2 to reattach wires to telephone poles.

Having moved to the Cayman Islands in May 2005, British Virgin Islands resident Joyce Titley was able to experience firsthand the recovery efforts after Hurricane Ivan.

Nearly 13 years after Ivan, the BVI is struggling to bounce back from its own devastating storm, Hurricane Irma. According to Ms. Titley and others, conditions in Cayman eight months post Ivan were much better than those currently in the BVI, as the latter British Overseas Territory approaches its own eight-month anniversary.

With power and many other essential services having been restored, the basic living conditions in the BVI have improved markedly since last September – so much so that the BVI government required all the evacuees who had been staying in Cayman to return there by March 31.

However, the territory continues to grapple with a number of daunting issues, including housing shortages, a sluggish economy, and a local population divided over whether they should accept increased oversight from the United Kingdom in exchange for financial aid.

Meanwhile, BVI residents are scrambling to prepare for the next June-November hurricane season, looming right around the corner.

Around 8 a.m. on Easter Sunday, the sounds of hammers, saws and drills echoed through the hills in Josiah’s Bay, a small village on the eastern end of the BVI’s main island, Tortola.

While much of the Caribbean was resting or going to church on that holiday, people there were working furiously to rebuild their homes from the destruction wrought by Hurricane Irma some seven months ago.

Construction activity has been nonstop in recent months, since the territory’s residents finally started receiving insurance money on their damaged properties. Brian Jermyn, the managing director of one of the jurisdiction’s largest insurance companies, Caribbean Insurers, said his firm has processed about 2,800 of the 4,000 claims it received after the storm. Most of the complex claims involving large businesses are still outstanding, meaning that the people who have been processed are the ordinary residents.

The construction boom has been a blessing to those who lost their work in the tourism industry, which has yet to recover. People who once worked at a hotel or for a charter yacht company are now making a living repairing homes, and the local community college is holding free construction courses in an attempt to satisfy contractors’ increasing demand for laborers.

But despite all the construction, some of the BVI’s more impoverished areas remain in ruins.

In Huntums Ghut, many buildings were totally destroyed, and those that were not still had tarps covering damaged roofs and plywood over areas where windows and doors had been torn off.

On the second floor of one of the damaged buildings, former Huntums Ghut resident Ravenal Santos surveyed the remains of what once had been his three-bedroom apartment.

“When the roof came off and the ceiling came down, that’s when I realized I’m in danger,” said Mr. Santos, who had to wait out the first half of Irma in a refrigerator after his house collapsed in the midst of the storm.

Nearby, two people were lowering an engine into a damaged car, but seemingly no other work was going on in the area. Mr. Santos said many of the buildings in the area were not insured.

Conditions on the territory’s smaller islands are even worse. According to Sea Cows Bay resident Julian Willock, roughly half of the homes there are without roofs. Many people are living in tents, he said.

BVI resident Ravenal Santos surveys the wreckage of what was once his apartment. – Photos: Ken Silva

Chris DeVito, a telecommunications worker from the Alaska-based firm Bering Sea Eccotech, arrived in the BVI on Easter weekend to begin the long project of repairing the territory’s cable system. Before that, Mr. DeVito had been working in Puerto Rico, which had also been badly damaged last September by Hurricane Maria.

Mr. DeVito said conditions in the BVI were even worse than those in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory that was facing an 11-year recession and a public debt crisis before Maria hit.

“I’ve been in Puerto Rico for a while, and I just didn’t see as much devastation [there] as I’ve seen here in Tortola. Puerto Rico was hit pretty hard, but they didn’t lose 100 percent of their utility poles. They still had power in some areas,” Mr. DeVito said. “Everything I see [in Tortola] is totally destroyed. There’s no way you can use anything for the cable system.

“I’ve never been to a war zone, but this is about as close as I can imagine.”

The United States Virgin Islands also appears to be faring better than its sister territory. While many of its hotels are still closed and streets that used to teem with tourists are now relatively empty, the USVI has at least cleaned most of its debris and wreckage.

A taxi driver on St. Thomas said that the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency has been instrumental in getting the USVI back on its feet.

The BVI is not getting that kind of help from the U.K., but has received an offer from the country for US$400 million (CI$328 million) in loan guarantees.

However, those guarantees come with conditions. In exchange, the U.K. government will establish an agency to monitor the BVI’s spending of that money, and will also conduct an audit of the territory’s public finances – and require reforms based on the results of that audit.

The requirements sparked outcry from some residents, with one opposition legislator even likening the U.K. mandates to “economic slavery.” A prominent billboard was installed downtown, reading, “We Virgin Islanders do not support the U.K. framework for the BVI recovery plan.”

“I agree with the recovery plan, but the conditions are too strict,” said Mr. Willock, who is also a member of the opposition Virgin Islands Party. “Obviously that’s because of the lack of trust in this government, but the U.K. is talking about cutting the public sector. Now you’re talking about putting our people out of work – and setting up a separate agency [to manage the funds]. There’s a Financial Act that states the money is supposed to go into the consolidated fund. Now you’re talking about circumventing the [Virgin Islands] Constitution.”

Nevertheless, BVI Premier Orlando Smith maintained that the U.K. guarantees are vital to fund government’s US$722 million (CI$592 million) disaster recovery plan, because they will allow government to save tens of millions of dollars by borrowing at 1 percent interest rather than the higher rates that would be charged with non-guaranteed loans.

“It is time for the raw sewerage to stop running in our streets and ghuts [gutters]. It is time for us to build a stronger and more resilient electricity grid. It is time for us to restore our criminal justice system, including rebuilding accommodation for our judiciary,” Mr. Smith urged in a March speech in favor of taking the U.K. guarantees. “It is time for our prisoners housed in St. Lucia to be back at Balsam Ghut where they can be in touch with their families and friends. It is time to find shelter for those made homeless.”

Along with rebuilding the territory’s physical infrastructure, a large portion of the recovery plan – more than US$200 million – will be used to expand the BVI’s main airport.

With no direct flights between the BVI and the United States and many other Caribbean jurisdictions – Cayman Premier Alden McLaughlin traveled on a Cayman Airways flight with supplies to Anguilla immediately after Irma, but said he could not travel to the BVI because its runway was too short for the jet to land on – government has long maintained that an expanded airport is necessary for its financial services and tourism industries to compete with others in the region. Government has painted the project as crucial to stimulate the recovery.

Over the protests of the opposition and some in Mr. Smith’s own administration, government passed legislation at the end of March to accept the U.K.’s loan guarantees and accompanying requirements. After the territory’s governor assents to the legislation, the BVI’s recovery efforts should receive a major boost.

Still, “We have a long, long way to go,” Mr. Willock said. “We are open for business – schools are open, courts are open, ferries are running again – but we’re not back on our feet yet.”