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Hurricane Irma tears through British Virgin Islands

The Prince of Wales visits the remains of Elmore Stoutt's High School in Road Town during a visit to the island of Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands as he continues his tour of hurricane-ravaged Caribbean islands.

The Prince of Wales outside the remains of Elmore Stoutt High School in Road Town, Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands on 18th November

“The big question for us before the storm was whether we should leave home and go to the shelter,” says Freeman Rogers, the editor of weekly newspaper the BVI Beacon. He made the right decision. “Our home was completely destroyed. The entire roof blew off and the windows blew out so it was just walls left. If we’d stayed it would have been terrifying,” he says. The majority of people on Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands, did not leave home on the day Irma struck the Caribbean archipelago. “When roofs blew off people’s homes they huddled in closets or under mattresses,” says Rogers. “Many thought they were going to die.”

Rogers joined a small group of evacuees at a shelter in the capital, Road Town. The original shelter, a concrete structure on the grounds of an episcopal church, held up for a while until its galvanised metal roof began to come apart. Water began to come through so the group moved to a choir loft inside the church which was more secure. After the storm subsided, Rogers had a chance to survey the damage done to the island. “It was crazy, there were places I couldn’t even recognise,” he recalls. “There were upside-down cars that had been blown down the hillside, roads covered with roofs – and all the leaves had been blown off the trees, there was no greenery anywhere. It looked like everything had exploded. I spoke to a 90-year-old who’s lived on Tortola his whole life and he said that nothing else has come close.” Four people in the BVI would die as a direct consequence of the storm.

The days following the hurricane were tough. There was no electricity, limited clean water and minimal food supplies, and looters made it risky to go out at night. Rogers says that it took four or five days for aid to reach most people. British troops made a significant positive difference, though, especially in relation to law and order.

Jost Van Dyke, the smallest of the main BVI islands, was devastated by Irma. Susan Zaluski, an expat who runs the island’s preservation society and works for popular beach bar Foxy’s, was out of the country on the day the storm hit. Believing she’d be more help as part of the relief effort outside BVI, she travelled to Puerto Rico where volunteers were helping to ship donated supplies to the BVI and the US Virgin Islands. “Two weeks after Irma I was in Puerto Rico, willing Hurricane Maria to come towards me,” she says. “It was like cheering for somebody else’s destruction, a horrible feeling, but the storm had to hit somewhere and the BVI had just experienced Irma.” Her wish came true. While the BVI was hit quite hard, it was spared the worst of Maria: Puerto Rico took the brunt.

Soon afterwards, Zaluski returned to Jost Van Dyke. “Everything had gone. My home was gone and I lost many possessions, but as a foreigner I have other places I can go to. For people from here who lost everything and have nowhere else to go, it’s a very worrisome situation.” Some of the structures at Foxy’s survived and the bar became a community kitchen for islanders in the days following Irma. Many Jost Van Dyke residents, lacking electricity and running water, and with a limited supply of food, cooked shared meals in Foxy’s kitchen. The bar reopened on a limited basis in October but was forced to let some staff go due to the lack of income.

It will take time for the community on Jost Van Dyke to heal from the damage inflicted by Irma. Zaluski says that many people are angry and pessimistic about the future. “There’s lots of fighting and it’s heartbreaking,” she says. Tortola is also struggling. Ten weeks after the hurricane, it only has 40 percent of its power supply running and many still don’t have secure accommodation. “Shelter is the most urgent priority,” says Rogers. “Lots of people here have patched-up roofs. They get flooded by rain all the time. Many have lost their tourism jobs. But residents are staying positive and trying to carry on.”

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