By Mellica McPherson
The unforgettable hurricane season that delivered the terrifying eye of Irma to the Territory, followed by a category 5 twin called Maria came to an end on Thursday 30 November leaving damages that will take months if not years to repair and a financial hole that government is struggling to fill.
Earlier in the year when the usual predictions came no one batted an eye. Even on 25 May when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) updated its previous hurricane forecast which predicted an “above normal” season it was seen as no cause for concern.
This was because the British Virgin Islands had been spared from category 4 and 5 hurricanes for years, and the preparation with no serious consequences became a routine for residents – a sort of drill. Therefore as the Department of Disaster Management (DDM) and the NOAA predicted a 70 percent likelihood of 11 to 17 named storms (winds of 39 mph or higher), of which five to nine could become hurricanes, including two to four major hurricanes (Category 3, 4 or 5; winds of 111 mph or higher) there were no alarms.
The nonchalant attitude even extended to Government as a number of hurricane shelters were not fixed until very late or not at all. Even though Tropical Storm Arlene, a rare pre-season storm that formed over the eastern Atlantic in April gave indications that things were not going to be normal: still no one bothered.
Later as hurricane Harvey flooded the United States residents here in the Territory watched the images on television with sympathy, not knowing that the BVI’s turn was coming. Even the unusual summer heath, and an unprecedented August flood that prematurely ended the annual emancipation celebrations – caused no one to think that a hurricane of extreme proportions was coming.
In September predictions of Irma began and as warnings sounded many residents remained unperturbed. In fact as hurricane Irma was scheduled to arrive on September 6, residents up to 1:00 a.m. that morning were seen driving along the roads much to the horror of the Disaster Management Director Sharleen Dabreo who repeatedly pleaded for residents of the BVI to stay indoors and await the arrival of hurricane Irma.
Although hurricane Irma was being described as one of the most dangerous hurricanes to hit us in decades persons were not overtly worried about a hurricane because all seemed calm. However, Ms. Dabreo announced that the initial stillness is no indication that there is no cause for concern. “We just got to be patient and understand that if we stay indoors we are extending our abilities to be here after this leaves… This is a massive, massive hurricane…this is way out there it has kicked over the scale.”
In expressing further concern about the midnight drives the DDM Director said: “It is quite unfortunate that people would not take this serious this is one of the most major hurricanes on record, and it’s heading our way. We really want to appeal to those persons to please use some common sense because at this stage these things are very risky.”
“I am praying, I am praying so much that the people of the BVI have done everything in their power in their ability to ensure that they are prepared and ready for this very dangerous hurricane,” the DDM Director added.
Up to midnight no weather forecasts aired by ZBVI indicated that we were going to be in the eye of the storm, only after 5 am the weatherman gave a quick update confirming that it was going to be a direct hit, and indeed it was – too little too late. Prior to that, weather forecasts from various sources indicated that Irma was going to pass much south of the BVI and would cause havoc to St. Croix, then there were other weathermen saying it may pass north of us. No one seemed to know – it was a déjà vu of what had happened on Festival Monday: conflicting forecasts and poor communications.
The Director’s fears were realized as Irma struck damaging the same ZBVI Radio station that was giving vital alerts. Most communications were down, and even the DDM suffered major damages and the operations center that served the Territory for decades had to be evacuated. This is certainly a warning for the BVI government to place DDM in bomb-proof premises – let’s hope they hear!!! There should also be a bomb-proof radio station able to air “accurate” and “timely” emergency bulletins.
Ten days later Maria followed her sister and tipped structures that dared to stand after Irma.
Now weeks later many areas in the Territory are still without power and Premier and Minister for Finance Dr. the Hon. D. Orlando Smith explained that the Territory suffered an economic hit that is weighing hard against the day-to-day operations and obligations of the public purse.
Therefore as the season ends many are uncertain and apprehensive to rejoice as tropical storm Arlene demonstrated that these phenomena can also occur outside of the season. Furthermore, residents are already worried about what the next season might bring and are busy building to withstand. Even though June is some months away no one is taking any chances.