More than a year and a half after Hurricane Irma devastated the Virgin Islands, government has not provided a comprehensive account of millions of dollars’ worth of donations, gifts and grants that well-wishers from around the world have given towards the recovery effort.
Instead, public officials have responded to requests from the Beacon by providing incomplete snapshots of some contributions, which include cursory details from the financial secretary, a redacted spreadsheet from central government, and a smattering of interviews and comments from various officials.
The most detailed account came last October, when government released a spreadsheet that listed incomplete information about some $16 million in contributions, including almost $12 million worth of programmes and projects provided by the United Kingdom. But officials quickly backpedalled after sending out the document, asking the media not to publish any donor names and promising instead to provide more details in a press conference the following week.
That press conference never came.
The Beacon’s continued requests for more information garnered a few more details last month, but the promised full accounting of all Irma donations remains outstanding.
Brodrick Penn, the chairman of the Disaster Recovery Coordination Committee, reiterated in April that the $16 million spreadsheet “in its raw form” does not paint an “accurate or clear” picture of the recovery.
“It was not meant for external consumption in that form but rather to guide the Premier’s Office on reporting to the public and other stakeholders on the recovery,” he wrote in an email, adding that the spreadsheet needs to be “distilled” in order to be more accurate.
A donor’s report, which officials promised last November would help to “fully account” for post-hurricane donations, has not been released either.
Mr. Penn said last month that the report had been drafted during the DRCC’s tenure under the former administration. The committee is now expecting to brief the new government about the draft and “the recovery in general,” the chairman reported, but he did not specify when exactly the briefing would take place.
Mr. Penn couldn’t say whether or not the public will get to see that report.
“We anticipate that after its completion and agreement, a decision will be made on its publication,” he wrote.
In June 2018, the Beacon first attempted to learn exactly how much money had been raised by government-managed hurricane relief funds and how it had been spent.
Since then, after being prompted by the Beacon and other news outlets, officials have provided descriptions of multiple accounts, though some funds that appear to be the same have been called by different names.
One of the most publicised accounts was the BVI Recovery Fund. A Pledgeling account for the fund, which is described as “government’s official Irma relief fund,” was shared widely across social media after the hurricane and was still displayed prominently on the BVI Tourist Board’s website in early April.
BVITB Director Sharon Flax-Brutus responded to a Beacon query last June, however, by asking this reporter to “advise what BVI Recovery Fund is.”
In subsequent emails and during a phone interview — after this reporter sent Ms. Flax-Brutus a link to the Pledgeling account in which she herself apparently posted several times — she declined to speak about the fund.
After months of questions posed to several government officials, Mr. Penn, the DRCC chairman, gave the Beacon a few details about the account after first criticising past Beacon coverage on Irma donations and urging this reporter to write a “positive” story.
About 693 separate donors had given a total of roughly $121,000 to the BVI Recovery Fund as of last fall, Mr. Penn said in November. After Pledgeling administrative fees are taken out of that total, net proceeds are about $116,000, he said.
As of this month, it remains unclear if any of that money has been spent to date or if government has outlined any spending priorities for the account.
Last September, Financial Secretary Glenroy Forbes also sent the Beacon a short spreadsheet in response to queries about the BVI Recovery Fund, which his spreadsheet didn’t mention.
Mr. Forbes’s document lists three relief funds that government managed since Irma: a set of donations, gifts and grants worth almost $16 million; a $973,000 “Emergency/Disaster Fund” allocated in previous annual budgets; and a roughly $900,000 “Hurricane Irma Account.”
The most weighty item listed on the spreadsheet was titled merely “value of donations through programmes/projects,” which apparently included “approximately” 284 donations. All told, $15,896,551.68 was received, and $6.3 million had been spent as of last September, the document suggests.
As for the “Emergency/Disaster Fund,” there was $973,041 in the account before Irma, and $845,680.10 remained in September, according to the spreadsheet. Some $127,000 was spent on “gas for cleanup and relief and other [National Emergency Operations Centre] costs,” the list states.
The disaster fund encompasses “small amounts of money” that government has allocated in several past budgets, Mr. Forbes explained at the time. A fund committee, which he chairs, typically receives requests from struggling residents through the Department of Disaster Management before making decisions about who receives assistance, Mr. Forbes said.
A third government relief fund, the “Hurricane Irma Account,” received donations from other Caribbean governments, various banks, financial services firms and others, Mr. Forbes said, adding that this fund was not advertised to the general public. The account received $869,488.10 in donations, and about $377,520 was spent on the rehabilitation of the Commercial Court, Mr. Forbes’s spreadsheet states.
Separately, Chief Information Officer Desiree Smith emailed a list of 199 donations to members of the media last October after such information was requested at a press conference that month.
The spreadsheet listed limited information about more than $16 million worth of donations and pledges that government received after Hurricane Irma.
Mr. Forbes did not respond when asked via email last year and last month if that set of donations is the same as the group titled “programmes/projects” in the spreadsheet he provided.
Ms. Smith’s document included donor name and donation “type” and value, but some of that information appeared to be missing. A column listing the dollar value of 47 donations, for example, listed “0” for 152 others, and no date was provided for 122 of the entries.
The majority of donations that were assigned a monetary value came from the United Kingdom government, which provided almost $11.8 million to the Public Works Department, according to the document. The rest apparently came from non-profit organisations, businesses, government agencies or individuals, the list suggests.
The list also did not specify how exactly donations were used in most cases, though it appeared to list the government agency that received each one and the surname of a senior official in that agency.
After the Beacon requested more information about the document last year, Ms. Smith sent another email to the media stating that the Excel document “contains sensitive information, i.e. donor names.”
“As such, we ask that the information submitted be treated as such by way of omitting the names of any donors or any other persons who have been revealed in the document when publishing any communique for public consumption,” she stated.
In the same email, Ms. Smith promised that a press conference would be held on Oct. 16 to answer “questions and concerns” about the list.
More than six months later, that press conference has not been held.
Mr. Penn, the DRCC chairman, did not provide an update about the cancelled press conference, but he answered some longstanding questions about Irma donations in an email last month.
The spreadsheet that Ms. Smith sent last year, he said, is incomplete in some areas due partly to the disorganisation of post-Irma life.
“Please recall that the data was being collected during very unprecedented circumstances. [As such] some dates could not be pinpointed precisely and may be immaterial — for example with the non-monetary donations,” he wrote. “Equally, the overwhelming majority of entries is non-monetary donations and therefore it would be difficult to have precise values.”
The list as a whole included donations and pledges that were recorded by the Premier’s Office, along with inputs from the Department of Disaster Management and various ministries, as of October 2018, Mr. Penn said.
The chairman explained that in most cases the monetary donations do not actually refer to cash received or expended directly by government, but rather to the value or pledged value of projects and programmes.
For example, he said, one $2 million listing referred to the cash assistance programme run by the BVI Red Cross; another $676,000 entry was the initial value of the United Kingdom’s contribution to the “prison repair project;” $1 million refers to the “initial value of pledge by Unite BVI” for rebuilding the Bregado Flax Educational Centre; and $320,000 was the initial value of the UK’s contribution towards a temporary Magistrates’ Court.
One private donor also pledged $300,000 to support government’s scholarship fund, Mr. Penn added.
Four other donations that were listed as having a value of “0” actually referred to BVI Rotary Club donations of water, juice, meals and “pledges” to assist “a primary school;” a pledge for the rebuild of Jost Van Dyke Primary; donations from DHL Express of various relief items; and fundraising of about $132,000 from the BVI House Asia to assist with the rebuild of Elmore Stoutt High School, according to Mr. Penn.
Mr. Penn’s analysis
The DRCC chairman also gave his own breakdown of all hurricane relief funds this month, saying that there are “three main accounts where monetary donations were deposited:” the BVI Recovery Fund managed by the BVI Tourist Board; a fund operated by the BVI London Office; and a relief account maintained by the Ministry of Finance.
The London Office account raised about $232,000 through fundraising activities, Mr. Penn said. As of last October, $30,000 of that was disbursed to the Adopt-a-Roof programme, and $170,610 was transferred to the MOF relief account. After bank charges, $35,342 remained in that account as of October.
As for the MOF relief account, which appears to be the same “Hurricane Irma Account” described by Financial Secretary Mr. Forbes last year, Mr. Penn said the fund received $324,230 from regional governments and other organisations; $374,648 from private sector entities including local financial services firms; and the $170,610 from the London Office.
Roughly $378,000 was used to repair the Commercial Court and $30,000 was given to the Family Support Network, in addition to the $30,000 for Adopt-A-Roof that came directly from the London Office account, he wrote.
The rest of those funds —some $431,488 — are being used to fund “small recovery projects” identified by different ministries, Mr. Penn reported,adding that proposals from ministries and non-governmental organisations are currently being assessed.