This article originally appeared in the Beacon’s Sept. 6 “Irma Anniversary” edition.
The team of people who once served as Virgin Gorda’s de facto government now have their headquarters in the tile-lined changing room of a partially completed swimming pool.
Motivational quotes that used to adorn the walls of their former makeshift control centre have been carted over to the new base camp. “A hero is a person who does what they can,” one reads. In another room — what was initially intended to be the pool’s showers — twin folding tables and chairs have been brought in to create a conference area.
After Hurricane Irma, the VG Recovery Operations Centre, more commonly known as VGROC, temporarily became the island’s decision-making body while government officials on Tortola were unable to consistently communicate or send aid.
But in the 12 months since the crippling storm, Virgin Gorda and its community leaders have had to find their footing again in a post-Irma world. Some aspects of daily life are unchanged, though most have taken on a new normal.
Tourists have trickled back in slowly and residents continue to rebuild what they can, though some crucial infrastructure remains heavily damaged, and a handful of people who lost their homes are still living in the last remaining emergency shelter or a block of vacant housing units.
“We got back to some normalcy relatively quick, but I think people have gotten very comfortable,” said Dwayne Strawn, a board member for VGROC and the self-described “make-it-happen guy.”
“And in getting comfortable, you get complacent. We are so accustomed to being knocked about that it becomes normal.”
Last September, VG’s problems were more urgent: There was island-wide destruction, concern about the potential breakdown of law and order and no working telecommunications system to reach officials on the mainland for days after Irma.
“Last year we were totally cut off,” said Vincent Wheatley, who works as the sister islands coordinator in the Deputy Governor’s Office and heads VGROC. “We had no Department of Disaster Management; we had nobody.”
In a matter of days, the island took matters into its own hands and VGROC was born. Individuals who worked in various sectors of public life set up the main recovery centre in an empty section of Scotiabank, held town meetings and organised boatloads of aid from around the world.
In a way, VG was better positioned for recovery because of the sudden lack of bureaucracy and a surplus of moneyed, high-profile residents. The island relied on aid from several major donors, Mr. Wheatley said, including James Hagedorn, the CEO of Scotts Miracle-Gro; Czech billionaire Petr Kellner; and Sir Richard Branson.
Becoming an NPO
Eventually, though, as the emergency phase lifted, the time came for government to resume authority. VGROC was transformed into a non-profit organisation.
“We knew the government was back up and running and we kind of started to step back so we wouldn’t clash,” Mr. Strawn said.
Many duties the committee had taken on — loaning tools and machinery, cleaning ghuts and public roads — fall under various government ministries. Those departments could get angry if it looked like they were shirking their responsibilities, Mr. Strawn said.
“Now, we’re kind of scaled back. If you drive around you’ll see there’s a lot that can be done, but we had to take a backseat approach. We purposefully did that because we didn’t want to be offensive,” he said.
Mr. Wheatley — who plans to run as the VI Party candidate for Ninth District representative in the next general election — spoke similarly, explaining that government officials were likely not pleased that another powerful entity had sprouted up in their place.
“I don’t think they were impressed,” he said. “I think they were more upset than impressed. But that’s my impression.”
Hubert O’Neal, the current Ninth District representative, wrote in an e-mail that while he hopes VGROC “remains a force in the community” and is “optimistic” that he can forge a closer relationship with the group, he thinks the organisation has changed since its initial days.
“I cannot thank the VGROC organisation enough, first for their initiative in coming to the rescue of the Virgin Gorda Community and their perseverance in assisting residents to recover as well as they did,” he wrote.
“I am proud of the VGROC organisation even though, in my opinion, the group has morphed into more than just a social organisation but is venturing into political activism. I wished that I could retain a close working relationship with the group. … Unfortunately, this is not always the case.”
Mr. O’Neal said that he weathered the storm in his basement on Tortola, huddled together with family members, and was finally able to find a ride on a helicopter to VG to help about four days after the storm.
“As I flew into Virgin Gorda, the worst of my fears were realised after seeing the enormous devastation from the sky,” he said. “After landing, I immediately toured the communities of The Valley and North Sound, meeting and mostly comforting the many troubled residents.”
In the following days, he said, he continued to assist as much as possible, including visiting the VGROC command centre, checking supplies at shelters, coordinating relief supplies from Puerto Rico and St. Vincent, and participating in daily briefings from DDM.
Instead of boats and planes bringing over food and critical medical supplies, daily ferries and private yachts now cart over tourists from Tortola, prepped for a day at The Baths National Park or Oil Nut Bay.
The tourism sector — the lifeblood of the island — is working to rebuild, but many restaurants, hotels and resorts are still shuttered.
“The Virgin Gorda economy is in shambles,” Mr. Wheatley said, listing off a handful of the high-end tourism properties that are currently closed. “[Those employees] represented easily more than 25 percent of our total population before the hurricane.”
The tentative re-opening dates for some of those properties remain months — if not a year or more — away.
Bitter End Yacht Club, a mainstay in the North Sound, was levelled during Irma. The resort estimates it will have its mooring field, marina and “harbour-front operations” open by spring of next year. Rosewood Little Dix Bay — which was shuttered for renovations in 2016 — wrote on its Facebook page that it plans to open in late 2019, although the resort is still closed “for all future reservations.”
Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbour, a focal point of the island that was in the midst of a major renovation when Irma hit, also struggled to clear the dozens of damaged and destroyed vessels that littered its boatyard, causing frustration for some boat owners and residents.
But Keith Thomas, the VGYH operations manager, said the harbour has been making steady progress towards recovery. Almost all vessels that were in the boatyard during the storm have been righted, he said, and about half have been taken away for repairs.
“We’ve gotten rid of a lot of the derelict boats,” Mr. Thomas said. “And we’re still repairing and emptying out boats, but we’ve been taking in a whole bunch of new boats over the last two months too.”
Oil Nut Bay began renting villas in March and plans to open up four new suites and “The Marina Neighbourhood” in December, which will include a restaurant, bar, pool, lounge, coffee bar, market, deli, boutique and library, according to Emily Oakes, the resort’s director of marketing and villa and rental management.
Necker Island is also “welcoming back guests to a newly restored Great House” in October this year, according to Charlotte Dollin, head of public relations for Virgin Limited Edition.
Mr. O’Neal believes that tourism on Anegada likely bounced back quicker than Virgin Gorda because the devastation there was not as intense.
“Anegada, fortunately, has seen the return of tourism with most of the yachting charters now preferring Anegada as their prime destination in the BVI,” wrote Mr. O’Neal, whose Ninth District includes both islands. “However, Virgin Gorda’s tourism industry remains deeply depressed due largely to the devastation of all its major resorts, inns and villas.”
Progress in some areas might be slow, Mr. Wheatley added, but development should also be focused on proper training and green practices.
To that end, there has been some progress. Recycler Julie Swartz, who heads Green and Clean VI Ltd., recently exported her first container full of over 25 metric tonnes of waste (the vast majority of it being Irma debris) to the United States. Her company has been recycling glass, metal and other materials on VG for years.
“For the most part, Virgin Gorda is coming back right,” Mr. Wheatley added.
But certain elements of the island haven’t come back at all.
The electricity building in The Valley is in a similar state as it was one year ago: Exposed metal beams provide an outline for where the second floor used to be, now replaced with open air.
On a recent hot July day, a group of men sat under the shade of a green tarp in one part of the building, playing dominoes.
“You can take a picture of the building, but not of us,” one man said. “We’re working.”
An architect, however, is currently planning a redesign of the building — which housed offices and general storage space — and in the meantime the BVI Electricity Corporation is utilising a portion of the VG Administration Complex for bill collections, according to BVIEC Deputy General Manager Henry Creque.
The police station in Spanish Town, along with its corresponding barracks, haven’t fared much better. The entire top floor of the barracks was destroyed, and the roof and several walls were blown away.
Funding given through a United Kingdom contractor didn’t stretch enough to make repairs to the barracks by the end of the UK financial year on March 31, Police Commissioner Michael Matthews reported in an April sitting of the Standing Finance Committee.
“This has become very challenging to have to move officers, and there is no accommodation — especially for officers who have homes on Tortola,” Mr. Matthews said, according to a report on the closed-door SFC proceedings.
In late August, the commissioner said there had still been no repairs to those buildings, calling it “very frustrating.”
Recently, the Recovery and Development Agency was enlisted to finally start repair work on the barracks. The agency invited businesses in late August to submit tenders for the project, and will hold a conference and site visit on Sept. 18.
Bregado Flax Educational Centre is also getting major reconstruction work done.
Two buildings at the centre are being rebuilt with the help of Unite BVI and Flow, while the Ministry of Education and Culture will be responsible for the restoration of another building through the Caribbean Development Bank loan package.
This work will include concrete roofs, bathroom restoration, doors and windows, electrical and plumbing work, and painting, and is slated to be completed in the first term of 2019, according to a June update from Education and Culture Minister Myron Walwyn.
Among those residents who lost their homes entirely, some are still living rough, one year on.
As on Tortola, some of the homeless have shuffled between government-designated emergency shelters for the past 12 months.
The Department of Disaster Management announced that emergency shelters across the territory were “formally closed” on Nov. 30 — nine months ago — but that didn’t mean everyone had to leave. Three people still call the North Sound Community Centre home.
Another group has taken up residence inside several units of an unfinished housing development built by Chris Yates, which were almost completed and ready to be sold before Irma.
Ms. Yates isn’t sure exactly how many people are living there now — she guesses that at one point there were about 20 throughout various units — but because so many people lost their homes there was a desperate need for temporary accommodation.
“I just said, well, people are welcome to stay there: They’re at least dry. I had a place and those people needed a place, so what can you do?” Ms. Yates shrugged.
As for when her unexpected tenants will leave, she said she’s not forcing anyone out.
“The people in those houses didn’t have anywhere to go,” she said. “I keep saying that whenever they move out I’ll finish [the units] and sell them.”
On Virgin Gorda, there’s a lot of praise for Ms. Yates and others who have provided shelter and other assistance.
“Chris doesn’t support any political party: She supports what’s right, what’s fair and what’s good,” Mr. Strawn said. “She’s a decent human being, and I think we can all take a page out of Chris’s book and learn from her.”
When doling out credit, there are almost too many people to name.
Last month, Mr. Strawn gave an informal tour of various areas around the island that are still struggling, stopping to acknowledge a throng of construction workers at the Robinson O’Neal Memorial Primary School, hardworking employees at Hog Heaven Bar, and a friend and jack-of-all-trades named Elsworth Collins.
“[Mr. Collins] was one of the guys who was doing anything and everything after the storm. He’s also a licensed electrician, so he would go and do that. That’s what he does,” Mr. Strawn said.
While some of Virgin Gorda’s millionaire and billionaire residents and vocal politicians have gotten the most ink since the storm, people like Mr. Collins are not recognised enough, he said.
“I want people to understand that there are certain people who may get the glitz, the glam and the limelight, but make no mistake: There are a bunch of other people, people behind the scenes, that are working their ass off and you may never hear what they do,” he said.
As another hurricane season bears down, VGROC has assumed a revised role in the community.
The group’s focus has always been on doing whatever needs getting done, Mr. Strawn said. Immediately after the storm, it was coordinating evacuations and getting food and water to residents. These days, it’s taking on small clean-up projects like helping to repair roofs or fixing up schools.
But its main goal, Messrs. Wheatley and Strawn both said, is teaching Virgin Gordians that hurricane preparedness should be “a way of life.”
“Right now our focus is disaster preparedness,” Mr. Strawn said. “[We’re] getting information out to people, getting them to know and understand the importance of being resilient and resourceful.”
Back inside the VGROC headquarters, supplies are stockpiled in the event that another storm makes landfall. Two large containers outside the changing-room-turned-office are chock full of items like shovels, rakes and other tools.
There’s a healthy dose of scepticism among the community that help would flow efficiently from government if a powerful hurricane hits again.
“On Virgin Gorda we’ve opted not to focus on what government is doing. We’re going to assume that they’re going to do their best, but we’re focused on what we need to do in case government fails,” Mr. Wheatley said, adding that VG has its own independent telecommunication system now, made up of digital VHF radios.
“We’re preparing for a higher level of independence from any kind of outside help. In case we’re cut off again for a longer period of time, and you can’t get any kind of outside help, we can survive for two or three weeks.”
But in some ways, that hand-to-mouth period of survival that Virgin Gorda experienced in the days after Irma was easier to navigate than the months that followed.
“I miss the old days; I miss the old VGROC days,” Mr. Strawn said last month while driving towards North Sound and away from the non-profit’s new headquarters. “We were just a group of persons who came together to make things happen.”