By Mellica McPherson-Ganda
Imagine moving to paradise with your family two weeks before one of the most devastating hurricanes in Caribbean history, leaving you at the helm of the Territory as Governor responsible for ensuring law and order and calm in the aftermath of catastrophic chaos. This is certainly the story of how His Excellency Governor Augustus Jaspert’s tenure as Her Majesty’s Representative here in the BVI commenced.
Two weeks before the unforgettable strike of the murderous hurricane Irma, headlines told the welcoming story of the young Governor’s arrival with his family, and his subsequent tours throughout the length and breadth of the BVI as he familiarized himself with his new home. As the forecasts later told of Irma’s pending arrival Governor Jaspert did as he should and addressed the Territory urging all to prepare, not knowing completely what was to come.
In an interview with The Island Sun newspaper the new Governor recalled his personal experience during and after Irma. Governor Jaspert explained that it was his and his family’s first hurricane experience. Nonetheless, he said that he joined his wife, two children, their dog and other persons who were sheltering at Government House for what was expected to be a normal hurricane passage. However, as Irma moved in, the party had to move from the large areas to smaller rooms, before all nine of them were forced to huddle in a closet.
In recounting what the experience was like, His Excellency said: “You start off chatting, then you start off silent, then you go to prayer, prayer at the end. The children did really well. We sang songs to them to keep them happy, and also because of the noise…the noise level for me, this was my first hurricane, my family’s first hurricane. In fact it was our third week in the BVI, so keeping the children positive during the hurricane was a real priority for us.”
In explaining the horror of the storm, the Governor said that he and the others sheltering in the closet listened as the storm damaged the fort-like Government House: “There were moments when we heard the first window go, then the next windows and the doors. You can hear the bangs going around the house—you know one room’s gone. Then the next room’s gone. We went out quickly during the eye to see if we could shut some of the doors, and close up our area. Me and one of the other dads we went to close down our area a little bit to see if we can secure the door: that door went in the end,” Governor Jaspert said.
“Irma was unprecedented. What I faced is what everyone faced — which is getting through the emotional trauma of what was happening and I still think every day, wake up and pray for the four people who lost their lives, and also think how can I, in the position I have, get help for the community to rebuild their homes and rebuild their businesses.”
The Governor’s two children: Tobias the youngest, who is five years old and Oscar who is nine years old are said to be in good spirits following Irma, although the ordeal itself was rattling.
“It was difficult, very difficult for them. They had only arrived two weeks earlier which for children moving to a new home anyway is a big change in their lives. I think they had had three days in their new school… They were clearly shocked by Irma and I think they are staying very strong,“ His Excellency said.
Being Governor of a Territory that was thrust into a state of emergency required extra attention and time. Therefore the Governor and his family decided that it might be best for his wife and children to travel to the United Kingdom to leave the Governor to his duties.
“The aftermath of Irma and Maria as well, has obviously required a hundred percent of my time, focus, and dedication; so for me personally and for the family they have gone back to England for a few months just so I can give every single ounce of energy and every bit of my time and focus to helping the government here,” he disclosed.
The Governor’s children are already fond of the Territory and he said that they constantly ask about their return. “Every time I speak to them they ask when are we coming back and we’re going to get them back as soon as possible and I am hoping that it will be very soon…They have got a fantastic mother, who is the strength behind me as well, and she is supporting them brilliantly, but we want to be back together as a family as soon as possible. It’s not nice being a family that’s separated and particularly when I know that they’ve been through a difficult time as well.”
When asked about his wife’s experience, Governor Jaspert said: “My wife is a primary school teacher so she is quite good at dealing with difficult situations. Immediately, she got straight to work, in fact, she sent the boys out the next day to clear up the debris on the drive, helping us open up the roads.”
Rebuild and Recover
Following the traumatic passage of hurricane Irma, the Governor – like every other person in the Territory – had to cope with the post storm issues that arose. However, His Excellency said that he was comforted by the interaction he had with residents.
It was stated that the work to recover the BVI began even as Irma raged. “For me it was the biggest challenge I have ever faced in my life. It was a challenge that I approached from the moment the storm finished. In fact whilst the storm was still raging the Police Commissioner and Fire Service officers came to get me out of the house. They had to sort of knock to get through where the windows had gone in to get me out.”
In disclosing the leadership steps that were taken even as the category five hurricane lingered the Governor said. “We went to look for the Premier. We were walking out, the sky was dark and there was wind around, so that the Premier and I could start work on making sure that we were getting the services ready to rescue people where they needed it. To get the response going and to make sure we started a good plan going for how we are going to immediately start the recovery and the support to people who needed it. That was actually the first step and an important step in terms of everything I have done, then we declared a State of Emergency.”
“We had to make a lot of decisions bringing in the UK military, bringing in overseas support but all of this was a collective effort with the Premier, with Cabinet with Members of the House of Assembly… With support from the Director of Disaster Management who I think is a hero,” the Governor stated.
Most unfortunately hurricane Irma touched many and brought about changes both internal and external. Governor Jaspert said that he has changed as well. “I think I changed in terms of – a little scared in some way and I will admit to being that. There were times when in the midst of it, I was still singing songs to keep the children happy even when the doors and the windows won’t hold; and that’s something that stays with you.
“For me the most interesting experience during Irma wasn’t so much getting through Irma itself but it has been the month afterwards, and the resilience the spirit the energy that I see every time I go out to meet people in the community that amazes me…that inspires me every day,” he told The Island Sun newspaper.
“It’s a different life to how it was the first two weeks, but all of my effort is going into rebuilding that life not just for myself but for everyone in the community…I am hoping it’s a Christmas with my family. For me, family is really important: they are of course the anchor to my life. I hope it’s a Christmas also that I can walk around and see incredible progress, so that people can get a break. They can go to places that are thriving – restaurants and shops as they are already rebuilding and open, churches repaired and the community in a better place. Every single day I see progress so in the days to Christmas when we hit Christmas I hope it’s going to be a very happy one for people here.”