This article appeared in the Beacon’s “Irma Anniversary” special edition on Sept. 6.
Sharleen DaBreo, the director of the Department of Disaster Management, is trained to think about all the things that could go wrong. But even she couldn’t have anticipated what happened last September.
“Irma is now earmarked as the worst-case scenario for us,” she said during an interview in late June, sitting at a table within the DDM’s makeshift base in Simms Mini Mall.
“I have been in this position nearly 25 years now, and I think I can consider myself and the staff here well-schooled in emergency management. But I would have never thought we would have gotten something like this.”
In the year since Hurricane Irma, government officials, emergency responders and others have grappled with how their response succeeded or fell short — and how they can do better.
Ideas vary widely, and many are already being implemented. Ms. DaBreo, for example, envisions a more robust communications system and a better-coordinated distribution system for handing out relief supplies to residents. Police Commissioner Michael Matthews is planning to hire more officers and is looking towards the private sector this hurricane season for help while police infrastructure remains heavily damaged or destroyed.
BVI Red Cross Chairman Geoffrey Brooks said the non-profit is stocking up on more relief supplies ahead of time and bolstering its presence on the sister islands, and Medical Officer of Health Dr. Ronald Georges has examined creative healthcare solutions like deploying “mobile clinics” to remote locations after a disaster.
There are many ways to learn from Irma, Ms. DaBreo said, while still remembering the magnitude of the storm.
“We need to stop at some point in time and really reflect on what happened to us last year, and be grateful we survived it,” she said.
Loss of DDM HQ
When first responders emerged after the storm, they realised that their pool of resources with which to aid the general public had diminished dramatically.
The DDM, for one, lost its building, and employees had to evacuate during the eye of the storm.
“With us moving, having to evacuate the building, we had to move with very limited equipment,” Ms. DaBreo said. “So we were very dependent on the few [satellite] phones that we had.”
Despite having access to some satphones, the director said, the devices can be tricky to use for someone without the proper training, especially when obstructions like heavy cloud cover affect the strength of the signal.
Community members on Virgin Gorda, for example, said they were unable to reach officials on Tortola using their satphones in the immediate aftermath.
“People think they operate like a cell phone,” Ms. DaBreo said. “There was a lot of discussion saying, ‘Oh, we should have had more satphones.’ In my opinion we had a lot of satphones on the ground that just could not work for various reasons.”
Law and order
Nearby, at the Governor’s House, the police commissioner was also evaluating the sheer scale of the destruction on Sept. 6.
Just as it was getting dark and the winds were dying down, Mr. Matthews walked with another officer to the Road Town Police Station.
“I think it would be fair to say we were in a state of shock,” he said during an interview in June. “We were just looking around, seeing the devastation, and in my mind I knew immediately that we would not have the resources on the ground to deal with what we were facing.”
Mr. Matthews said a plan had been decided on in the days before the storm, which entailed pre-deploying officers in various police stations, battening down the hatches, and waiting for the hurricane to pass.
“The first priority for us in 2017 was getting out on the street, and it was about protection of life,” he said. “We knew, obviously, as soon as we came out that the scale of the impact was far bigger than anything we planned for.”
The group of officers who had been pre-deployed focused first on rescuing people from buildings or other areas where they were trapped, the commissioner said.
“For example, some of our officers in the first few hours found a couple of judges trapped in a car who had gone to shelter in their vehicle and found themselves trapped there,” he said.
In those early moments, it was difficult to tell exactly how high the death toll might be. Mr. Matthews recalls a tough conversation with Governor Gus Jaspert, before he had seen the Road Town Police Station or even made contact with Premier Dr. Orlando Smith.
“The governor said to me, ‘How many people do you think have been killed?’ And we were just looking at total devastation and I said, ‘Could be hundreds,’” Mr. Matthews recalled. “So we were already thinking, before we knew, about the worst-case scenario.”
The commissioner said he and Mr. Jaspert also discussed calling for military assistance from the United Kingdom that night. The governor made the decision to do so “very quickly,” he said.
Before the storm, Mr. Matthews had planned for a new batch of police officers to arrive on duty to relieve the first group after about eight hours. But some of those desperately needed officers never arrived, he said.
Communication systems were down (including the police radio system), officers were stuck in their homes, and roads were blocked — all factors that could have contributed to their absence, the commissioner said.
“It meant we had to make some tough decisions about keeping officers on duty who had already been on duty for an excess of 24, 36 hours by then. People were tired, people were shell-shocked,” he said. “But not a single person said to me, ‘I’ve had enough; this is too much for me.’”
The commissioner was also concerned about a potential breakdown in law and order, especially considering that officer numbers were low.
“We knew most of the banks had been breached, and in one particular case we knew there was a potential the vault could be breached,” he said. “The last thing you want is money running amuck on the streets at a time like that.”
Damaged health clinics
The health care system faced extreme challenges, too. Many smaller clinics throughout the territory were damaged or destroyed, leaving the residents who relied on them for regular medication with very few options.
With the loss of power, people suffering from serious medical conditions or chronic diseases also had trouble keeping medications that need to be kept at a certain temperature, like insulin, refrigerated.
“A lot of vehicles were also damaged, so in terms of getting around, even when the roads were cleared it was difficult for people to get to Peebles Hospital,” Dr. Georges added.
Fortunately, Peebles had survived Irma, and in the days after it became an improvised base for the wider community.
“You would notice that there was significant damage to government buildings and the Central Administration Complex, but because of its structure Peebles stood. So it became not only a place for medical care, but a place for shelter and a place for government itself to function,” the medical officer said.
He added that several waves of people came to the hospital with particular medical needs.
“At first there was a big surge at Peebles of people with injuries like lacerations,” he said. “The subsequent surge would be for things like infected wounds, and in two weeks or so you got the chronic disease surge because of the lack of access to medication, proper care and widespread damage.”
On the non-profit side, the BVI Red Cross was grappling with its own heavily damaged headquarters and a desperate need for more volunteers.
“We got a hold of the person who represents the British Red Cross in London and he sent people here within days after the storm,” said Mr. Brooks, the BVIRC chairman. “We called and said,‘This is really bad; you need to send as many people as you can.’”
12 months later
A year on, Commissioner Mr. Matthews is working to make the police force more prepared in the event of another Irma-like storm. For one, he’s hiring more officers to an already expanded force.
In early 2017, the force recruited 27 additional regular officers and four auxiliary officers. Some of those fresh recruits ended up being the first to respond after the hurricane.
“They were relatively untrained,” Mr. Matthews explained. “They didn’t really have any experience, but at that time it was important that the public saw the police, so we took a chance and put officers out on the street.”
After the storm, government agreed to let Mr. Matthews recruit another 45 officers over the next three years, which would bring the total force to more than 300 available uniformed officers, he said.
But as numbers grow, police infrastructure needs to be rebuilt, too.
Many police buildings have not seen any repairs in the past year — including the former Road Town Police Headquarters, the station on Jost Van Dyke and the police station and barracks on Virgin Gorda.
“I know it’s common knowledge — you only have to walk all around with your camera and look at the state of the police infrastructure still — we face a major challenge in that regard,” Mr. Matthews said.
The Recovery and Development Agency, though, has been enlisted to start repair work soon on at least one crucial building: the VG barracks. In late August, the agency invited businesses to submit tenders for the project, and it plans to host a conference and site visit on Sept. 18.
In the meantime, the commissioner is looking toward the private sector for short-term solutions this hurricane season.
He said he has spoken to some businesses about the police force “borrowing” their buildings to temporarily house officers if another hurricane is expected. Mr. Matthews has also identified underground or protected car parks to store police vehicles during a potential storm, considering that a single felled tree could take out a large portion of the fleet in one swipe, he said.
One positive element about last year’s destruction is that it led to a lot of innovation, at least within the healthcare system, Dr. Georges said.
When elderly, disabled or otherwise immobile people couldn’t get to Road Town, various district representatives would find out the medical needs of those in their district, get prescriptions from Peebles, and bring them back to the community, according to the medical officer.
Another successful technique was deploying “mobile clinics” within about a month to areas where no local brick-and-mortar clinics were operational.
Dr. Georges said that after Irma there wasn’t necessarily a problem with the quantity of medication that Peebles had available, but rather with the distribution of that stock.
“As soon as we secured vehicles and the roads were passable, we sent mobile teams out with medication and equipment and emergency supplies to go out and provide care,” he said.
Mobile clinics aren’t a fix-all, though, the medical officer warned. Roads still need be clear and the medical vehicles need to be adequately protected during a hurricane so they aren’t destroyed, he said.
Now, after issues with distribution of medication last September, officials are telling residents that during hurricane season they should keep one- to two-month supplies of necessary medications on hand, rather than just a week supply.
Residents should also know how to do basic first aid, like how to deal with a laceration or a broken bone, Dr. Georges suggested.
“Folks need to understand that they may be in a situation where they can’t access care, and that they may need to be able to do some of those basic things,” he said.
More Red Cross supplies
The BVI Red Cross is one organisation that’s helping to provide some of that first-aid training, Mr. Brooks said.
“We’ve hosted first-aid and disaster training on all three sister islands and on Tortola,” the chairman said. “We’ve really been upping our game, so we have a lot more people trained in first aid and they can deal with things when they happen.”
But the non-profit isn’t just looking to bolster residents’ disaster response. The group is also looking inward and examining how it could have been better prepared last year, and planning steps such as expanding its storage facilitates to store more relief supplies that are needed right after a disaster.
“By the time we got shipments of tarps here, it was six months after the storm,” Mr. Brooks said. “And it wasn’t too late, but we could’ve used them a lot quicker. Now we’re trying to learn to get things more ahead of time.”
The Red Cross is also making sure it addresses the needs of all major islands, not just Tortola.
“One of the problems we had with Irma was that our response was mostly on Tortola,” Mr. Brooks said. “We weren’t very organised on Virgin Gorda and Anegada, so we’ve been trying to make up for that. We’ve strengthened both our sub-branches on those islands and conducted training on Jost Van Dyke.”
All four responders also agreed on a major lesson: Being able to communicate with officials and other residents is hugely important — and it was impossible to do effectively in the days after Irma.
“The problem with all of this is you need to be able to tell those reassuring messages and calm the situation down much earlier on than we actually physically could, and that’s because we had no way of communicating,” Mr. Matthews said.
Even improvised ways of getting information to the public were in short supply, he said, like driving through town in a truck with a loud speaker. Most vehicles that police still had at their disposal were being used as makeshift ambulances or to clear roads.
Mr. Matthews said police can put certain contingencies in place before the next storm to combat that issue, like asking rental car companies not to hire vehicles out to the general public, instead keeping them on reserve for the use of emergency services.
The force is also testing out a much more robust radio system and procuring more satellite phones. Though Ms. DaBreo doesn’t think the quantity of satphones was the problem (but rather the cloud cover that obstructed a signal and a lack of trained satphone users), Mr. Matthews said the police force only had one or two.
“Next time around, my anticipation will be that each of my commanders will have a satphone and the minute we’ve seen the hurricane go through, … we can switch it on and start talking to each other very, very quickly about what are you facing, what does it look like — and then determine the response,” he said.
Mr. DaBreo emphasised that it’s just as important to rebuild “low-tech” communication systems as “high-tech” ones.
For example, DDM is buying more “loudhailers” (devices similar to megaphones) and speakers to go on vehicles, as well as reaching out to amateur radio operators from around the community.
Future DDM plans
Last year, some residents complained that necessary relief supplies were not finding their way to the general public. Ms. DaBreo said government had never had to implement a large-scale distribution system in the Virgin Islands before.
Aid was flowing in from all directions and from many international organisations, she said, and there was no central coordinating system to keep track of it all.
“We have to be much more accountable for what is coming into the country, because people need to know what exactly we have and where it’s gonna go,” she said.
Though DDM has operated from the Simms Mini Mall after its McNamara building was heavily damaged last September, there are plans in the works for a new facility.
Ms. DaBreo said the department is in the process of designing its new headquarters, which will be created to withstand tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes and other types of disasters.
The director said other government agencies are also looking to be prepared in a more long-term way after their experiences with Irma, and the DDM has even urged grocery stores and hardware stores to increase their inventory.
“They are now taking an aggressive stance of making sure their readiness levels are for a lot longer period of response than they would normally have,” she said.
“It’s obvious that if we go under alert people are going to rush to supermarkets, rush to hardware stores — maybe a lot are going to rush off the island as well — so we are looking at all those factors to make sure people have an option to protect themselves.”
As for whether the revised emergency strategies across government agencies and private organisations would actually make a difference in another powerful storm, Mr. Brooks said the only way to know would be to test them.
“To be honest, we’ll know for sure if we get any action this hurricane season,” he laughed.