The past six years have dealt some serious blows to the Virgin Islands community as residents worked to rebuild from hurricanes Irma and Maria, then had to deal with the shutdown of the territory during the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, though, many community members are expressing optimism, even with the increased cost of living and other continued challenges.
“When you come back from mass destruction, any step in the right direction is a steppingstone,” said Laura Fox, the principal of Ciboney Centre for Excellence in Virgin Gorda. “Whilst there are still many things that have to be done, when you look back to where we have come from, only those who were here in the morning hours of Sept. 7,  and came out from their houses and saw what had unfolded can truly understand how far we have come today.”
Aiden Abednego, a 19-yearold student at the University of Reading, said he feels enough time has passed for him to adjust to life post-Irma.
“I would say the effects of Irma have diminished as time has gone on,” Mr. Abednego said. “Obviously in the first couple of years, it was a big adjustment trying to spring back better than ever. But I feel like, for the most part, it has no longer negatively influenced my life.”
Those who experienced the hurricanes will never forget them, and Mr. Abednego said he remains hypervigilant when storms pass the territory.
However, the damage no longer has the same hold on many people’s consciousness as in the immediate aftermath.
“You don’t see much debris around anymore,” he said. “Life has moved on, which I feel is a good thing.”
‘90 percent’ recovered
Last year, BVI Red Cross Director Stacy Lloyd estimated the territory’s recovery at about 85 percent. But with the completion of projects like the new Elmore Stoutt High School and other infrastructure undertakings, she would bump that figure up to 90 percent now, she said.
Ms. Lloyd added that the BVIRC has been encouraged by increased involvement from youth volunteers compared to the past six years.
“It gives them a sense of maturity and responsibility as far as the community goes, and they get an understanding of what it is the Red Cross does,” she said.
Ms. Lloyd added that getting past the worst of the pandemic and seeing the government structure stabilise has put the territory in a good position to gain “traction” on remaining recovery projects, such as repairing damaged houses and hurricane shelters.
“I would like to see a lot of those homes that need to be rebuilt be built,” she said when asked what should be a main priority by Irma’s seventh anniversary. “It’s not just an eyesore. That is the least of it. If it’s a weak structure, if another major hurricane was to come, those would become flying pieces.”
BVIRC Volunteer Coordinator Jaikarran “Steven” Persaud stressed the importance during hurricane season of making sure that ghuts are properly cleared to help with flooding concerns — one of the compounding issues that hit before Irma and Maria.
The shutdown of the territory’s borders in the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic also dealt a financial blow to many businesses and families recovering from the 2017 hurricanes. And after the territory reopened its borders, residents felt the effects of inflation as the cost of living rose rapidly around the world.
Still, the private community has continued to rebuild, as businessman Allington “Gumption” Creque can attest.
He said his tourism-based business recently put out its best figures since 2017.
Some still struggling
But he urged the community not to ignore the Irma damage that still exists.
“There’s still many people, including myself, that lost a house during the hurricane and are either renting, staying at someone’s house, or living in a community centre,” he said. “We still have a decent amount of work to do.”
Virgin Gorda resident Andrew St. Hilaire pointed to the Ashford Waters Community Centre as one building still in dire need of repair.
“After the storm, the building suffered significant damage to the roof structure,” he said.
The roof collapsed in on building, rendering it unusable to this day. That and other shelters still await repairs, either needing funding or planning.
Ms. Lloyd said it is difficult to gauge how residents are doing fiscally as a whole, but the BVIRC is working to adapt to the new system of support offered through the Social Development Department.
Mr. Persaud also noted that a recent social assistance review conducted in collaboration with UNICEF showed that individuals making minimum wage would have to work double the typical hours to meet their basic needs.
As one of the community organisations working directly with residents, the BVIRC also offers assistance with mental health needs. Over the last year, the government has led campaigns to normalise discussions about mental health, headed mostly by Community Mental Health Services.
“Some people do understand that they need help, and it’s something that persons are more open to discuss and open to receive,” Ms. Lloyd said.
The BVIRC has also recently welcomed more church leaders in its training sessions for mental health counselling, continuing to build stronger community ties, she said.
Now that six years have passed since 2017, the BVIRC is also working to ensure that residents don’t slip into passiveness ahead of the peak storm season.
“In terms of public service announcements, everybody tries to do their part,” Ms. Lloyd said. “We specifically do our best to try to get as much information as possible out to the public about being prepared. I think because it’s been six years since we had a major hurricane, persons are becoming somewhat complacent. We try to help with outreach, doing pop-up booths at different locations.”
The organisation offers advice on its website for how to prepare for stormy weather and offers first aid training courses year-round.
ANIKA CHRISTOPHER and SARIAH LAKE contributed to this report.