The European Union-funded effort to refurbish and stock emergency shelters around the territory is music to our ears.
It was also a long time in coming.
When Hurricane Irma struck in September 2017, most designated shelters were grossly underprepared. As a result, the suffering of some of the territory’s most vulnerable residents was compounded.
One problem was glaring: Many shelters clearly were not structurally sound as required by the territory’s Emergency Shelter Manual, which was updated in 2015. Moreover, few, if any, were outfitted as required with three-day supplies of potable water and food, adequate medical supplies, and a designated medical officer.
It is true that Irma was extraordinarily powerful. But the devastation wrought on shelters could have been greatly reduced if the government had followed its own rules.
Much of the East End/Long Look Community Centre was ripped apart in Irma, forcing occupants to flee during the eye of the storm and break in to classrooms at the nearby Francis Lettsome Primary School.
In Road Town, the St. George’s Episcopal Church Hall lost part of its roof, and occupants evacuated to the nearby sanctuary and huddled in the choir loft as the second part of storm ripped through the pews.
At the Long Trench Community Centre, windows and doors blew out, leaving at least one family with young children cowering in a shower stall.
Clearly, none of those buildings was up the task.
Because of inadequate preparations, shelters also struggled in the storm’s aftermath. At St. George’s — which was not supplied with a stockpile of food or potable water even though it was the main shelter in the capital city — a volunteer manager reported at one point that the water supply for the roughly 30 occupants had dwindled to a dozen 12-ounce bottles. Similar scenes played out elsewhere.
Even now, few shelters have been adequately repaired, and Jost Van Dyke and Anegada both lack a primary shelter facility.
The $2.2 million in EU funding, then, is a Godsend, particularly at a time when the government is struggling to find recovery funding and most major public projects are on hold. We are especially pleased that the facilities are to be rebuilt according to the Pan American Health Organisation’s “Smart” standards, and that the programme also includes training for shelter managers.
Even so, the nine-shelter project — which is being coordinated by the PAHO — is expected to take some two years to complete.
Leaders must do their best to keep it on schedule. The VI has been lucky for the past two hurricane seasons, but we shudder to think what would happen if another major storm comes before shelters are fully repaired.
The community is lucky that no one died during Irma as a direct result of the pre-storm neglect of shelters. We hope the new programme is a sign of a lesson learned and a change in thinking.