The 2019 hurricane season, which saw the immense challenge faced by the Bahamas government in mounting an overall response to the destruction of Abaco by Hurricane Dorian, has prompted much reflection on my part on the Virgin Islands’ own external response to Hurricane Irma more than two years earlier.
This commentary provides some insight on the aspects of that external response in which I was involved as director of the BVI London Office during the emergency period between September and October 2017.
Aftermath of Irma
Following the passage of Hurricane Irma on Sept. 6, 2017, the islands had suffered catastrophic damage and most communications were offline. I successfully contacted then-Premier Dr. Orlando Smith, who immediately instructed me to request urgent assistance from the United Kingdom and international partners.
On the same evening, I received a call from Sir Alan Duncan, minister of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who reassured me of the UK government’s support for the VI. In the days and weeks that followed, the UK government’s Crisis Centre and the BVI London Office worked closely together as the UK government ramped up its emergency response to meet the scale of the disaster.
With news reaching the rest of the world of the devastation in the VI, the BVI London Office quickly became the VI government’s global hub, fielding numerous queries and requests from the general public, media, business, governments, civic organisations and persons concerned about their loved ones.
The office also became a vital communication link for Virgin Gorda, whose communication with Tortola had been completely cut off.
In response to the crisis, the VI government’s external offices (i.e. BVI London Office, BVI House Asia, BVI Financial Services Commission in Hong Kong, and the BVI Tourist Board in New York and London), and a number of government officials operating outside of the VI came together to coordinate an external response on behalf of the VI government.
The members of the group included me, Dr. Sandra Besson, Tracy Bradshaw, Elise Donovan, Pearla George, Jaslyn Frett-Thompson, Ginny Hawksley, Myrvina Jeria, Kenneth Baker, Dawn Smith, Leon Wheatley, Arliene Penn and Joseph Abbott-Smith.
Led by the BVI London Office, the committee worked to, among other things, ensure that the outside world was kept abreast of new developments as they unfolded on the ground; that stakeholders in the financial services and tourism industries were engaged; that fundraising efforts were coordinated; that offers of humanitarian aid/supplies were addressed; that VI students in the UK were contacted and those students in the United States in the path of Irma accounted for and prepared for the arrival of the storm.
As weather reports confirmed that Hurricane Jose was on course for the VI, which raised widespread concern for the lives of the people on the islands who remained highly vulnerable after Irma, the BVI London Office intensified media engagement. Hurricane Jose was subsequently followed by the formation and passage of Hurricane Maria which eventually affected the VI.
I made several international media appearances and also conducted interviews on radio stations in the Caribbean to update on the situation and to warn that new storms were approaching.
At the diplomatic level, I held an initial meeting with the then UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and later joined him in New York to participate in a high-level meeting at United Nations Headquarters, which he chaired. He was joined by then Foreign Minister of France Jean-Yves Le Drian, Foreign Minister of the Netherlands Bert Koenders, UK International Development Secretary Priti Patel, UK Overseas Territories Minister Lord Ahmad, European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid Christos Stylianides, UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock, and representatives of other affected islands in the Caribbean. I made representation to the attendees on behalf of the VI government.
I later returned to London and held more meetings with the political establishment to build up political support for the VI. These included meetings and exchanges with then UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, Ms. Patel, Brexit Secretary David Davis, Transportation Secretary Chris Grayling, Labour Party Shadow Secretary Emily Thornberry and Leader of the Liberal Democrats Sir Vince Cable, among others.
I also attended a special meeting at the Commonwealth Secretariat on rebuilding the Caribbean islands affected by hurricanes Maria and Irma, where I updated the grouping of diplomats, government officials, parliamentarians, businesses and civic organisations on the situation on the ground.
I later held bilateral meetings with Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo and Cayman Islands Premier Alden McGlaughlin, as well as helpful exchanges with counsellors from the Falkland Islands.
The United Kingdom Overseas Territories Association also supported the VI’s efforts through collective engagement with UK Parliamentarians. Former VI Governors Boyd McCleary and Frank Savage were particularly helpful in lobbying efforts.
The BVI London Office also maintained contact with CARICOM at secretary general level and participated in teleconferences of emergency meetings of CARICOM political leaders and attended a meeting in London between the CARICOM Caucus of High Commissioners and Ms. Patel.
These efforts were followed by engagement in Brussels to request humanitarian assistance from the European Commission.
To support the humanitarian relief effort, a Hurricane Relief Group was formed in London, chaired by the BVI London Office. The group brought together the VI Diaspora and the VI’s international partners, friends and supporters to coordinate plans and activities. These efforts culminated in a fundraising event at the Rooftop Gardens organised by the BVI London Office and BVI Tourist Board UK Office in partnership with Barclays Bank and Virgin Limited.
In both the US and UK, the BVI Diaspora organised clothing and supplies drives and other events to support the people of the islands. Townhall meetings were also held in New York, Atlanta and London, which I had the opportunity to address.
Job Well Done
Much credit is due to my former colleagues at BVI House, who included Dr. Sandra Besson, Tracy Bradshaw, Siobhan Flax, Nicholas Jeria, Aliston Simmons, Ola Tunde Lana, Ginny Hawksley, Myrvina Jeria, Kyle Harrigan and Emily Shand, who worked tirelessly while the BVI London Office carried the disproportionate burden of the VI government’s external response in the emergency period after Irma struck.
The UK government also showed the best of their political relationship with the VI in the cooperation between the BVI London Office and UK Government Crisis Centre led by Ben Merrick, director of the Overseas Territories Directorate, who served as the crisis operations’ “gold leader.”
The hurricanes of September 2017 were the VI’s darkest hour and the people of the islands can be proud of the VI government’s external response, which helped the territory get through its worst natural disaster in memory.