Lilli Charles was sitting behind a folding table in an empty room above Scotiabank on Tuesday, an audio mixer and laptop at the ready, a mic in his hand.
In front of him, a sheet of printer paper read: “ON AIR, PLEASE BE QUIET.”
Mr. Charles was in the midst of commanding 88.5 VG ROC FM — the sole radio station broadcasting in Virgin Gorda after Hurricane Irma — in between regular news updates.
“There was a big challenge in getting information to the local community,” Mr. Charles said after playing a song. “For a while we just had a pickup truck with speakers in the back.
“We got this FM transmitter set up, and have three news programmes a day, but the whole rest of the day the air was dead. I thought, why have dead air and not music? It’s good to keep people’s mind occupied.”
One of the most crucial aspects of Virgin Gorda’s recovery process has been getting reliable information to the community of about 4,000 people — and establishing a governing body to relay it.
VG 88.5 was created towards the end of September, but for several days immediately after Irma, the island was virtually cut off from the outside world.
On Sept. 7, residents walked outside to find utter destruction, and realised there was no way to make contact with government officials on Tortola or learn the status of other islands.
“We had no telecommunications — zero,” said Vincent Wheatley, who works as the sister islands coordinator in the Deputy Governor’s Office. “We can’t call anyone, no one can call us. So by word of mouth, we walked around saying: ‘Tomorrow, 10 a.m., town meeting.’”
The Virgin Gorda community swiftly took matters into its own hands, despite the lack of marching orders from Governor Gus Jaspert or Premier Dr. Orlando Smith. Mr. Wheatley said it took about a week to receive a call from the governor.
|This article originally appeared in the Oct. 12, 2017 edition.|
“We had to let the people know we’re okay; someone is in charge. We were shocked that no one came,” he said. “And after no one came, no one called. We didn’t know what happened; we didn’t know that Tortola was also devastated. The only contact I had was with the BVI London Office, and they only knew a little from the Navy ship and Tortola.
“It was very, very scary for people to know that we were cut off. If we don’t have food, we don’t have water, what are we going to do? It took us maybe ten days to get everything under control, to where we had medical supplies and food.”
Mr. Wheatley wrangled up five other people who work in various sectors of public life — tourism, medicine, security, education, religion — and together they set up the Virgin Gorda Recovery Operations Centre, which he chaired.
“We were on our own,” he said. “We started reassuring people that there must be law and order, they must obey the curfew, and we will try and take care of the needs. And that’s where we started.”
The recovery centre (including the radio station) operated out of the Scotiabank building, part of which was empty before Irma, in Spanish Town.
The new de facto government set a curfew, held more town hall meetings, and reached out to high-profile Virgin Gorda residents, some of whom were in the United States, for aid.
Mr. Wheatley called James Hagedorn, CEO of Scotts Miracle-Gro, and the first Saturday after the hurricane the billionaire was able to get five boats from Puerto Rico to Virgin Gorda with supplies.
Mr. Hagedorn wasn’t the only private donor the island had on its side. Sir Richard Branson also made trips over from Necker Island and arranged for boats to evacuate residents to Puerto Rico.
“That first town meeting, I looked in the crowd and Branson was there,” Mr. Wheatley said. “We didn’t even have a loudspeaker or anything; we used a speaker on the ambulance. He said, ‘I’m with you.’ And he has been.”
In total, the island has relied on seven major donors for aid, according to the coordinator. Two distribution points were set up, and residents were able to pick up food, hygiene products, water and medication three days a week.
When the governor and the premier visited Virgin Gorda a week after Irma, Mr. Wheatley had two requests: that they respect the structure that had been put in place, and that aid be allowed to come directly to the island rather than going through Tortola.
“We were able to get aid quicker than Tortola because inventory there had to be unpacked, see exactly what was in it, then repacked and shipped. We would have been three weeks behind if that had happened with us,” he said.
But one major worry for leaders in Virgin Gorda, along with those throughout the territory, was maintaining law and order. The community was solely reliant on local police for about two weeks before UK military arrived, according to the coordinator.
“It was a hard battle to get them to send personnel,” Mr. Wheatley said. “I personally had to call the [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] and say, ‘We need military in Virgin Gorda for security.’
“We didn’t want to send the message that looting was okay. I think if we had gotten them over a bit earlier we would have had less looting. They thought they had impunity; they could do whatever they wanted. They thought the police were damaged too; they couldn’t do anything.”
A local business set up space for 30 military personnel to be housed, according to the coordinator, but only nine were sent.
Recovery to rebuilding
Almost five weeks after Irma, the island is making large strides towards normalcy.
The UK military has left, and about 15 Cayman Islands and UK police officers are assisting local forces for the next few weeks.
Residents have running water for certain hours of the day and several parts of the island have regained power, including the Nurse Iris O’Neal Clinic, the Virgin Gorda Elderly Home and many other public buildings.
The recovery committee has even been able to take boatloads of supplies to Anegada and Jost Van Dyke over the past few weeks.
In the VG ROC headquarters, command stations are still up and running, serving anyone in the community who needs assistance.
There’s a table for those who still want to evacuate, a station for inquiries about insurance, and a corner that has become a library full of donated books.
Upstairs, maps of the territory cover cinderblock walls and inspirational quotes have been printed out. “A little progress each day adds up to big results,” one at the door reads.
Volunteers are working to assess who needs building materials and which area schools will reopen when (the base manager of the recovery operation, Laura Fox, estimates that all will be open by January).
Now that Virgin Gorda is transitioning from a state of emergency into the rebuilding phase, the future of VG ROC and its specific duties is a bit murky.
Mr. Wheatley said he is meeting with government officials this week to plan how exactly the small team that resurrected the island will take a back seat. He’s also in the process of converting VG ROC into a non-profit.
“Now government should be assuming more responsibility, and the committee less responsibility,” he said. “But we need to make it a transition. There’s a little bit of friction happening between the two groups; there’s a communication gap.”
Since the committee formed, it has been in charge of almost everything: keeping inventory of supplies coming in, loaning machinery, handing out aid, and, until a few days ago, even passport operations.
“This functioned outside of government, so we became the government,” Mr. Wheatley said. “People need to know that they can’t rely on us for these services here; they now have to come from the government, not us. But it can’t be an abrupt situation.”
Mr. Wheatley is confident that after sitting down with the premier, VG ROC will be able to determine what its role will be moving forward.
And by bootstrapping VG radio, determining a central point of command, and arranging steady supplies from donors, the group has fostered an even stronger sense of community pride.
“The people of Virgin Gorda must come first,” Mr. Wheatley said. “It will not be a political agenda being played out. It will be humanitarian, for the benefit of the people. It doesn’t matter how it goes, but it must go that way.”