- Written by FREEMAN ROGERS
- Published: 19 September 2017
Government leaders scheduled a press conference on Monday morning in order to give a comprehensive update on the relief efforts since Hurricane Irma. But that plan was trumped by a more urgent announcement: Hurricane Maria, which is now a Category Five storm, is expected to hit the Virgin Islands hard as its eye passes over Puerto Rico about 65 miles to the south.
Here, powerful winds are expected to start about 3 or 4 p.m. on Tuesday, and the storm’s eye is likely to pass around 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday, according to Department of Disaster Management Director Sharleen DaBreo. Though the territory likely will be spared a direct hit, the storm could bring six to 12 inches of rain, with 20 inches possible in some areas.
“Considering that all our vegetation has been removed [by Hurricane Irma], the risk of flash flooding is much, much greater,” Ms. DaBreo warned during the press conference. “The storm is going to be bringing with it high winds, heavy rains and storm surge, so people living in high elevations, low-lying areas or those who are close to ghuts — we are urging you now to consider moving to some area that is much safer.”
Asked if shelters are currently filled to capacity with people displaced by Irma, Ms. DaBreo explained that this question was being assessed on Monday at all 11 shelters that have been open in recent days.
“What we’re doing today is we’re going to every single one of those facilities to check the structure, the public health conditions, the condition of individuals in those shelters,” she said. “If we need to make a decision to move them to other safer locations, that decision will be made today. So the final listing of the shelters to support [the Maria] response will be issued this afternoon.”
Multi-purpose Complex As of 11 p.m. Monday the listing had not been posted on the DDM website or Facebook page, but Premier Dr. Orlando Smith said at the press conference that “one of the main places” government is concentrating on is the Multi-purpose Sport Complex in Road Town.
Though Irma pulled off a large section of that building’s roof, Dr. Smith said that damage was being repaired on Monday. The complex replaced the St. George’s Episcopal Church as a shelter late last week, and as of Sunday the number of occupants living there had grown to about 40 people, according to shelter manager Rashurma Lyons. The spacious facility, which has several showers and bathrooms, appeared to be more suitable than the church, where the cistern had been running low and a shortage of supplies had been causing tensions.
At the complex on Sunday, there were pallets full of drinking water and a supply of dry clothes and blankets. However, the back of the building was wet from the large hole in the roof, and several occupants were trying unsuccessfully to repair a plastic cistern that had sprung a leak.
At the press conference, the premier called on residents to look out for neighbours who may need assistance or whose homes were severely damaged in Hurricane Irma.
“If you are uncertain that you’ll be safe in your home, I strongly encourage you to get to a shelter where you and your family will be secure,” he said.
To facilitate government workers who are trying to clear roads and ghuts of debris before Maria, leaders have extended a curfew from 6 p.m. Monday until the storm passes. They are also urging residents to help the crews clean up in order to prevent debris from becoming dangerous projectiles or blocking drainage ways during the storm.
Governor Gus Jaspers said the territory is “pre-positioned” to immediately “bounce back” after Maria. To that end, United Kingdom Marines and UK and Cayman Islands police who are currently in the territory will continue help local police tackle any security concerns, the governor pledged. He also said that a “breach” that led to the escape of most inmates at Her Majesty’s Prison had been mostly rectified.
“Over 100 prisoners have been put back in, including the most dangerous prisoners that we were worried about,” he said. “They have been captured and put back in the prison and are now under a very secure guard … supported by the British military.” Asked how many prisoners had escaped, he stated, “The prison was breached, so what happened was some prisoners left but actually were abiding and [going] forth and back every day. Some actually were helping to rebuild the prison and taking shelter themselves: They were going back.”
Other inmates, however, behaved differently. “Some of the prisoners used the opportunity to get out and cause problems in the community,” he said. “We’re very pleased that we’ve got most of those back into the prison.”
Asked about the distribution of shelter kits — which include tarpaulins that many residents have been using as a temporary roof cover — Mr. Jaspert said that more are coming. “We have had shelter kits coming through,” he said. “I’ll be honest: We have had challenges in terms of getting all of the distribution to the level that we need and getting that out.” He added that a “strong distribution system” is now in place and he is urging the UK to make sure that more supplies arrive quickly.
Ms. DaBreo said that 1,000 tarpaulins that were in storage have been distributed, as have 640 that were brought into the territory as part of the relief effort.
“We did get some additional tarps yesterday, but one of the concerns we want to say to the public is putting tarps on with an approaching system may not be a wise thing,” she said. “So you may want to look at more trying to secure whatever plywood you can if you’re going to do any physical work to the structures.”
Tarpaulins, she explained, can lead to safety issues during a storm.
“We do not want tents outdoors during this approaching storm,” she said. “We do not want people to have loose tarpaulins flying: It’s just not going to be productive for them.”
She added that there are distribution points in all districts where residents can obtain tarpaulins as well as food, water, hygiene kits and other supplies.
Asked about plans to keep the sister islands informed about the coming storm, Ms. DaBreo said that a desk at the National Emergency Operating Centre is focusing on that task, and that she was confident that information has been getting through. Mr. Jaspert added that the UK government has sent satellite phones to assist with communications.
“That, as people know, has been one of our major difficulties: communicating when lots of the networks went down,” he said. “We now have radio backup, and the premier and I are doing morning and evening [updates]. We urge people to listen to that.”
Meanwhile, tensions were high as residents rushed to prepare for the storm. In front of the Multi-purpose Sports Complex on Sunday morning, more than 50 people milled around in hopes of obtaining tarpaulins that they had heard were to be handed out for District Five residents.
Dozens of other people at the complex had shown up for meeting with a delegation of Jamaican officials who were here to facilitate evacuations.
As the lobby grew increasingly crowded, that meeting was moved across the street to front walkway of the Althea Scatliffe Primary School. There, several Jamaicans signed up to evacuate, following in the footsteps of nationals of other countries that had assisted in evacuating their people in the days since Irma.
The next day at the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport, many of the same Jamaicans crowded the walkway outside the terminal for much of the day as they waited to fly out.
A large group of Filipinos was also there to evacuate, as were several Dominican Republic nationals.
Other residents were trying to purchase tickets to leave, but with mixed success. UK Marines are currently living inside the airport, and their tents take up most of the building, forcing airline passengers to wait outside.