The British Virgin Islands was our home for many years. The idyllic shores and vibrant culture fulfilled our longing for adventure as a newly married couple from South Africa.
Within a matter of months, acquaintances became friends and friends became family. Like many expatriates living abroad, we found ourselves woven into the community as though we had lived there our whole lives. We were shaped, indefinitely, by our experiences there.
And now we want to remind the world not to forget this precious island and its people.
When Irma set on a course for the British Virgin Islands as a Category 3 hurricane last week, we watched with much concern from Atlanta, Georgia, our current home. We contacted loved ones and friends to check on their preparations and wished them safe passage through the storm. Our long-time friends, John and Elaine, assured us with a message on Facebook: “Winds and rain are starting to increase. We are lucky we have a generator … We should be good for about 16 hours or so.”
Yet, within a matter of hours, Hurricane Irma had escalated into a violent Category 5 storm with sustained winds of 185 mph. By the time word had reached many BVI residents of the impending destruction, they did not have a choice. There was nowhere to go: flights had been canceled and ferries halted.
Using a Facebook group called BVI Abroad – Hurricane Irma, loved ones scattered around the world tracked the storm’s progress as the eye approached the islands.
Like so many, we watched helplessly as terrifying messages of SOS appeared on social media boards. One of our first friends on the island lay huddled in a hallway as her home was ripped apart by the winds. She posted to Facebook, “Phones damaged or gone. The Cars have blown away. No livable space. Still hiding in hallway waiting for winds to stop. Only phone is 346 xxxx for as long as battery lasts. If you are on Tortola we are in need of help so please call.” She, her husband and newborn baby would eventually have nothing to shelter them and end up running for their lives through hurricane force winds to seek refuge in the hospital. We would not hear of their safety for another 15 hours.
The eye, 25-30 miles wide, moved over the island, bringing with it the sheer force of the eyewall winds.
Then, total silence.
Rudimentary efforts to account for those not heard from appeared early that evening. There was no system in place to check on the living souls in the territory; no pre-defined system of communication when all else failed.
When the winds subsided, the beautiful nation of the BVI was left in tatters. Areas such as Cane Garden Bay, White Bay on Jost van Dyke, Bitter End and Carrot Bay reduced to rubble, shattered trees and twisted corrugated iron.
Media coverage across the globe centered on the islands to the east — Antigua, Barbuda, St. Maarten, and to the west, Puerto Rico and Cuba, leaving a vacuum of coverage on the devastation in BVI, which is in ruin.
Yesterday, after criticism from several British MPs, a supply ship, RFA Mounts Bay, arrived on the island bringing much needed supplies, including medical items. Yet, according to Kerman Haynes, a resident of the BVI, those on the island continue in search of these supplies, some walking miles just to find drinking water.
The BVI’s Health Services Authority has now made a special appeal to private medical practitioners, asking for additional volunteers to assist in treating victims at Peebles, the local hospital on Tortola. Dr. Annelise Lawton, who works at Peebles but is currently in Spain, told SkyNews that her colleagues said the hospital conditions were “horrific.”
Currently, one of the main concerns is the mountain of relief aid that needs to get to sick or stranded residents. For an island centered around community and commonwealth, this aid is essential to first secure a starving, traumatized and parched population; then to rebuild what was lost. The people of the BVI need help.
The BVI’s neighbor, the US Virgin Islands, is, at one point, one mile away from the mainland of Tortola. Hurricane Jose has turned north and no longer poses a direct threat to these islands. So, in all this carnage, we hope and pray for a substantial humanitarian effort among the UK, US and other countries with vested interests in the region.
As we turn our eyes toward places yet to be impacted by these deadly Atlantic weather systems, let us not forget those Caribbean neighbors who remain lost in a time of deep need.