“I would say we have a lot to be proud of,” Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said during a recent press conference when asked about the upcoming fifth anniversary of Hurricane Irma. “We don’t want to be in a perpetual state of recovery. We want to move on from recovery and move forward with our development.”
But in the five years since the storm, recovery has proved elusive for some residents.
“I would say that we are at about 85 percent,” said BVI Red Cross Director Stacy Lloyd. “When I look around in the community, I still see homes without roofs or with different damages. Some properties have been abandoned. Some businesses — most businesses, I would say, have rebounded. We still have to take into consideration Covid, which slowed down the progress of recovery. But I do feel individually and on a business level, we have come a very, very long way.”
Ms. Lloyd added that repairing remaining damage to homes — particularly those with missing roofs, which are vulnerable even to mild storms — is an essential part of the ongoing push for recovery and preparedness.
Repairing physical damages, however, is only part of the recovery process. The 2017 storms, she said, also had a lasting effect on the mental health of community members — an issue compounded by the pandemic.
“I do know of people who still suffer from [post-traumatic stress disorder] when it comes to hurricane season,” Ms. Stoutt said. “When a hard rain comes, they get very anxious. And I’ve seen it come out in different ways with Covid. That’s why we had to open our psychosocial hotline.”
Ms. Lloyd said progress has been made in this respect as well.
“I think people are more aware of mental wellness, and they are more inclined to look for help,” she added.
In the months after the storms, the Red Cross and other VI aid organisations focused largely on providing immediate assistance, but now they are increasingly turning their attention to long-term development efforts designed to boost their capacity to provide services.
The Family Support Network — which provided food and other aid to community members after the 2017 storms and during the pandemic — has seen many families make great strides, said FSN board member David Penn.
“Personally, I think we have come a very, very long way,” he said. “I think that terrible time showed us all the great resilience of BVIslanders and the residents of this country. To have come through that to where we are today, I think it’s a real testament to that.”
He noted, though, that assisting victims of domestic abuse — one of the organisation’s essential services — became particularly challenging after the hurricanes.
“We seek to address certain ills and problems in our community that otherwise would go unattended, and that is to care for and provide protection to those who suffer abuse at home,” he said.
Many of the spaces that provided shelter to abuse victims prior to the 2017 hurricanes were damaged in the storms, he said.
Now that the organisation is focusing more on long-term development, it hopes to build its own facility to provide secure housing for people seeking shelter, according to Mr. Penn.
Impact on youth
The storms’ long-term effects also continue to impact young people.
Sylvanna Charles, an English and theatre teacher at Elmore Stoutt High School, said she is proud to see a class of “Irma babies” she taught as seventh graders now entering the 12th grade.
“I have to be proud of them in the sense that they made it even with all the challenges of a shift system after the storm and Covid and working online,” she said. “They’ve gone through it. So you have to be proud of them in that aspect. But then in a sense, you’re kind of a bit disappointed because it’s a time in their lives that they won’t get back. They’ve not been able to experience a regular high school. Those kind of moments and situations build and mould you into the adult that you’ll be, and I feel like a lot of them, in a sense, are lost. … It’s bittersweet, but they made it.”
ESHS saw major damage from the hurricanes, and new buildings were scheduled to open at the start of the school year. However, Education, Culture, Youth Affairs and Sports Minister Sharie DeCastro said Friday that the project was delayed and students would attend classes on a hybrid system at least until October.
Ms. Charles said students have demonstrated tremendous resilience in being able to adapt to the circumstances after Irma.
She added that seeing junior ESHS students move back to the L-shaped building in Road Town was a step in the right direction, but she hopes to soon be able to teach out of a proper classroom rather than operating out of a space at the Clarence Thomas Limited building as she has in the years since Irma.
“Something like having your own classroom may seem so basic for many, but for us it would make such a difference,” she said.
Still, Ms. Charles said she is grateful for the work that has been done to help the wider community rebound.
“Time has gone by so quickly, and so many things have changed,” she said. “I still remember stepping out and seeing the destruction. I’m surprised that we’ve rebuilt so quickly. I would say, for the majority, things are back to what they were before the storm.”
Building future athletes
The lasting storm damage continues to affect not only students’ academic pursuits, but also their extracurricular ambitions.
“Over 90 percent of our recreational infrastructure was destroyed,” Dr. Wheatley said during an Aug. 8 press conference. “We did quite a bit to restore our recreational grounds, even though we have a few outstanding ones left.”
The premier acknowledged challenges facing those facilities but claimed the territory has some of the best in the Eastern Caribbean, particularly with the Multi-purpose Sports Complex.
“I share concerns about progress in building on the strong foundation established in past years, but every government in the world has to be able to balance all their obligations, and we are seeking to move forward in a positive way,” he said. “I acknowledged not just with this government, in repairing a lot of facilities after the hurricanes, but past governments: They’ve all contributed towards the development of sports.”
Sportswriter Dean “The Sportsman” Greenaway, who has documented the derelict state of sports facilities in the territory, said many more investments in infrastructure and maintenance are still needed if the government plans to fully support the territory’s athletes — particularly with the construction of a swimming pool adequate for Olympic training.
But more important is the need for a comprehensive plan to develop sports, he added.
“Prior to the hurricane, for example, since 2004 we have had the multi-sports complex as a facility,” he said. “But we do not have basketball programmes.”
While leagues can serve a purpose, he said providing men’s and women’s programmes is a necessary step for growing athletes to be able to develop their skills and pursue future opportunities.
Many businesses devastated by the storm have also been tasked with figuring out how to rebuild, even amid the economic challenges of the pandemic.
Sandy Lyons, director of the BVI Dance School, said the storms decimated her dance studio and tore the roof off the home her mother had built 45 years earlier. After going to the United States for three months to recover from an injury she sustained during the storm, she returned to the territory.
“I’d lost everything. When we went by the studio, I could see that the roof was gone on that too,” she said. “Driving through, what it looked like was just war. It was indescribable.”
She said it took some time to figure out how to move forward.
“It took me five months [after the storm] before I could even walk into the studio, because I knew it was going to be pretty emotional,” she said.
While those plans were being made to rebuild, Ms. Lyons began looking for temporary headquarters from which to teach. Even though many students from the dance school and other studios had to leave the territory with their families after the storm, she said she wanted to provide some normalcy for the ones who remained.
Ms. Lyons added that she was compelled to rebuild the studio for the same reason she returned before even having a place to live: It was her home, and her students needed her.
They didn’t even miss their annual dance fest, coming back to the stage in June 2018. Then in January 2019, the studio made its grand reopening.
“It was coming home,” she said of walking into the studio for the first time. She added that she is amazed with how the business community has recovered in the past five years.
“Every little victory is a victory for everyone,” she said.
Ms. Lloyd, the Red Cross director, said the community has learned a lot from its struggles over the past five years.
“I do feel and I do see where our community is more resilient,” she said. “We do have the education and the resources and the partnerships with governments and other international organisations that can provide the support that we need in the event of a major storm.”
Her agency, she said, has been working to promote such work, hosting its second annual Emergency Preparedness Expo in April and recently launching its preparedness programme for businesses.
“We continue to push our educational efforts in terms of recovery, resilience, and preparedness,” she said. “We try to find creative ways in how to engage the community and to get the information out there.”
Ms. Lloyd noted the importance of collaborating with the Department of Disaster Management and other organisations to help the community continue to recover and prepare for any potential future disasters, whether they come in the form of hurricanes or other emergencies.
Those educational efforts should extend to young people too, so they understand what to expect during an emergency, she said. Heads of households should also make sure they plan ahead to ensure the safety of young children, seniors, other vulnerable residents, and pets, according to the director.