- Written by CONOR KING DEVITT
- Published: 17 September 2017
In the 10 days after Hurricane Irma obliterated sections of homes and ripped entire restaurants from the shoreline, Cane Garden Bay remained largely cut-off from the outside world.
Though private citizens excavated Cane Hill’s road over the two days after the storm, communication between the beach community and the rest of Tortola was fragmented, unpredictable and prone to error.
Without power, wi-fi, cell service or a large government presence, those living in Cane – like many throughout the territory – were forced to rely on nuggets of word-of-mouth information, a slipshod medium of communication known by residents as the “coconut telegraph.”
On any given day, those who had driven to town or other parts of the island often rolled through and circulated chatter that was embellished or inaccurate, fed by the paranoia and frustration of a population suffering from catastrophe.
Some claimed erroneously that the local government was dissolving, some quoted fatality counts much higher than government’s confirmed number — still at five, as of Saturday — and others painted a false picture of a massive military takeover of the territory.
The confusion, however, was not limited to rumours spread by private citizens: On Wednesday, a military helicopter reportedly air-dropped supplies on the beach, but there was no ground detail to stop them from being pilfered; on Thursday, a Water and Sewage Department truck drove to the bay with drinking water but had no tank to deposit it in; and seemingly every day for the first week more aid was promised but the afternoons came and went without another official delivery.
That changed on Saturday, however, when the United Kingdom military and other aid organisations delivered a flood of supplies from private benefactors, and local Rotarians handed out sandwich-bun burgers cooked by chefs at Pusser’s. In addition, trucks dropped empty water tanks off at the Baptist and Methodist churches in the area.
Moving forward in the Second District
According to Second District Representative Mitch Turnbull, the primary distribution of supplies throughout the area will likely begin on Monday after they are logged and sorted at the Cane Garden Bay Police Station on Sunday.
Residents of the district can go to one of three places to receive them, including:
•The Cane Garden Bay Methodist Church
• The Cane Garden Bay Baptist Church
• The Agape Total Life Academy in the Great Mountain area
For some, the deliveries seemed to immediately lift spirits.
“It’s been a slow crawl, but I think right now everything’s going good,” said Kareem Rhymer, owner of Myett’s Hotel and Restaurant, which was severely damaged during the storm. “And that was expected because there were no mechanisms in place and because we are new to this kind of onslaught. I think from here on out things are going to ratchet up a little and we’re going to be okay.”
Others, however, were still disappointed at being kept in the dark for so long.
“This is a step, but it doesn’t change anything,” said Claudia Hodge, an employee at the law firm Hunte & Co.
Ms. Hodge decried what she saw as a lack of leadership that led to 10 days of minimal information and disorganisation throughout Cane.
“The communications are not there,” she said. “To me it’s clear that our infrastructure has been broken, if there ever was one.”
Despite the isolation, Cane suffered less from the inevitable slew of post-disaster criminal activity that at times plagued other parts of the island. There appeared to be no roving bands of machete-wielding looters here.
Some residents attributed that fortune to the closeness of the area’s community, especially visible in the shell-shocked wake of an unprecedented hurricane.
United Kingdom marines delivered four truckloads worth of essential goods, including diapers, clothes, food and water. Curt Richardson’s Convoy of Hope organisation was responsible for that donation, as well as a separate one to the First District.
Mr. Richardson is a Little Thatch resident and the CEO of Otter Box, an international cell phone case company.
Stewart Ross, a perennial tourist to the Virgin Islands, donated a load of food, water and diapers to the Methodist Church. Mr. Ross is retired and lives on a ranch in Colorado but travelled down to the territory after Irma to help with relief.
The Italian store in the Malone Center donated a truckload of pasta, water and cooking supplies to the Methodist Church. The delivery was facilitated by the Upper Valley Rescue Team, a New England-based wilderness rescue group that travelled down to the territory to volunteer after Irma.
In the days following Irma, Dr. Angel Smith, a pastor at the CGB Methodist Church, set up daily public meetings at 10 a.m. in his chapel to spread information, gather lists of residents and catalogue the population’s needs.
“I think this is an opportunity for us as a community to come together and start early planning so we can know where we’re going as a community,” Dr. Smith said at the beginning of the first meeting two days after the storm.
During that initial gathering, he began to compile a list with the names of all the government workers in the area, and encouraged community members to start documenting the names of their neighbours still living in Cane. Later in the week, that effort resulted in a comprehensive list of who remained in the Bay, according to Dr. Smith, who also teaches history at the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College.
In subsequent meetings, the pastor outlined four major priorities for CGB residents in the short term: creating an effective system for distributing supplies; encouraging proper disposal of trash in the absence of pick-ups from the Department of Waste Management; ensuring the security of residents; and accessing a legitimate stream of information.
Though the early sessions were hopeful in tone, both Dr. Smith and the attendees got more frustrated as the days came and went and no definitive answers or plan came from government.
They expressed anger with the disjointed communication and what they saw as a politicisation of need. In one of the government’s few official appearances at the meetings, CGB Representative Mitch Turnbull, Health and Social Development Minister Ronnie Skelton and At-Large Representative Archibald Christian all showed up to last Sunday’s session, but several residents criticised them for using the time as a “photo-op” instead of a chance to spread valuable information.
“It’s not the time to play politics,” said Denzil Cline, a CGB resident who attends the Methodist Church. “It’s the time for everybody to come together as one.”
Mr. Turnbull (R-D2), however, was proud of his community and the work everyone had done since the Sept. 6 storm.
“What I’ve seen immediately since the day after Irma was a community that our parents used to talk about,” he told the Beacon on Saturday. “Everyone looked out for one another. This is the BVI that I grew up hearing about.”
He praised the private heavy equipment operators who cleared the road in the bay and up the hill, as well as the support the UK and other Caribbean countries provided to the territory as a whole.
He also acknowledged the inevitability of mistakes like the helicopter drop and the missing water tank.
“We understand that in any situation whether it’s business or whether it’s an organisation, no system is going to be perfect,” Mr. Turnbull said. “All the issues, as they arise, we make note of them, we address them. I’m not going to blame anybody. It’s something that happened, we addressed it and as we continue to move forward hopefully we have less and less of them.”
In response to people’s frustration with the lack of communication, the representative pointed to his packed schedule.
“The difficulty with persons feeling frustrated — which is understandable — is the [National Emergency Operations Council] meets at 4 p.m. every day,” he said. “After the NEOC meetings, the government meets. So, by the time I get home it’s 7:30/8 o’clock. We’ll get it sorted out.”
Additionally, Mr. Turnbull pointed out that he also had a responsibility for reaching out and coordinating other areas of the Second District, like Brewers Bay and Jost Van Dyke.
Though the supplies would help, residents agreed that there is a long road to recovery ahead. That road, however, was not without positivity.
“There’s a ray of hope, man,” Mr. Rhymer said. “We gonna be okay. It’s gonna be a tough crawl back though. It’s not going to be easy, but we’ll be all right.”