A Year After Irma: Too Many Unanswered Questions!


By Mellica McPherson


Too much has happened since hurricane Irma descended on the shores of the British Virgin Islands exactly one year ago – taking and ruining lives in its path. Too many tears, and still so much sadness; but through it all, there was an impressive show of resilience that continues to inspire even now that months have passed.

The Territory has come a long way since that dismal morning of 7 September 2017 when many swore there was no hope or no quick way to recover. There are fewer signs that the BVI looked like an atomic bomb had struck it and many kudos or praise should be heaped on the government and residents.

Still in the celebration and reflection there is pronounced bafflement as at least 20 questions remain unanswered. However, in the interest of time – let us try to figure the top five.

Question Number One — Will These Roofs Survive a Category 5 monster?

One year later and there are still a few homes with tarpaulin, bearing testimony of how many of the buildings in the Territory looked following hurricanes Irma and Maria.

The days after the disaster saw a truly large number of buildings without roofs, windows, doors and in a few instances broken  and exploded walls. Some were not even standing and to this day a number of persons are still homeless. How many: even one is too many!

Nonetheless, it should be stated that praises are in order for the old building practices, as many buildings still managed to stand firm. However, the fact is that even contractors now must consider teacher Irma and build to defy any such hurricanes.

In acknowledgement of the new reality it was decided that a holistic approach on the construction front was necessary. Therefore, on 25 September 2017 during a town hall meeting Premier and Minister for Finance, Dr. the Hon. D. Orlando Smith announced that there will be new building codes.

Hon. Smith declared: “We have to take lessons from what has happened, certainly with Irma and review our building codes. We have lost and received damage to about 70 percent of our buildings, and that now gives us an opportunity to build smarter and stronger.”

However, some firm followers of climate change and related trends believe that a scientific approach might be necessary or even best; as they fear that the next hurricane might make Irma seem like a gentle breeze.

This now has some minds pondering – How then shall we build?

Lesson Number Two — What Will You Eat?

Food was a major issue following hurricanes Irma and Maria. The first two days after the hurricanes saw queues of people pushing and tugging to get into supermarkets to buy what was available to feed their families.

By day three some supermarket prices had noticeably risen although accusations of price gouging were fiercely denied. Guilty conscience need no accuser!

As things returned somewhat normal the question of food security became a hot topic, and a hot subject, in some instances led to anger about the current state of agriculture in the BVI.

Still, it is not clear what the best solution is as many farms were damaged and not even coconuts were immediately available in a post Irma BVI. Therefore, the question one year later as residents consider the current forecasts of storms in the Atlantic is “What will we eat?” Read the Bible: even the Pharaoh stored big reserves of food for his people. “Let the food be kept in reserve to feed the land for the seven years of famine that will occur throughout Egypt, so the people don’t die during the famine.”

Question Number Three — Why Was I Under Insured

After recovering from the fright of near death experiences, residents grappled with the reality of having to rebuild years and decades of investments and sacrifices that were wiped out in a matter of hours. Comfort for some came from knowing they were insured.

Smiling, many tried to claim — and that was where the second round of the nightmare began. Almost as if in a choir the tune throughout the Virgin Islands was that of insurance disappointment as for the first time the term “Under Insured” was trending.

The Premier, whose home was also damaged was forced to hear the cries and wails from persons who could not access the funds needed to rebuild their broken homes. As the complaints mounted Premier Smith called a meeting with the insurance providers on 11 September 2017.

Present at the meeting were representatives of Caribbean Insurance Limited, NAGICO Insurances, Creque’s Insurance Agency, Colonial Insurance, Mutual Insurance, Alphonso Warner Insurance Agency and the Insurance Company of the West Indies.

It was noted that Caribbean Insurance Limited had already started the claims process for their clients, and as such the other agents and companies gave the Premier their word that no later than 18 September their offices and staff will be ready to serve the public.

In fact, it was reported that Ruth Phillips, President of the Insurance Association of the British Virgin Islands (IABVI) during that meeting assured the BVI Leader that the companies were ready to pay. She declared, “Collectively the insurance companies in the Virgin Islands are confident that we will be able to address claims and are working together to start the rebuild of the Virgin Islands. We commend the Premier for meeting with us and we are ready to do the work to support the rebuild of our community.”

Premier Smith was told that the local insurers received confirmations from their reinsurers that claims would be honoured.

However, by December nothing much had changed. Therefore, on 5 December, Premier Smith, had to meet again with the insurance companies. This time banks were also called in following more outcry from residents.

It was reported that the Premier was receiving complaints of difficulties with the timely resolution of claims, the disparities in estimated costs of damages and settlements, and the increased insurance premiums.

Now residents who are still trying to rebuild are asking: Should another hurricane strike, what else would my insurer tell me? “Your windows and doors could stand 110 miles winds, but category 4 and 5 are 150 miles plus plus plus; so you are responsible for most of the damage!!” And even if they were guaranteed to stand 170miles winds, how can you trust the manufacturers whose motto is to sell more doors and more windows?

Question Number Four – A Burglar, A Looter and A Thief — What’s Difference?

Looting was an unprecedented phenomenon that residents had to grapple with following hurricane Irma. Many businesses were vandalized and robbed and the police are still planning to lay charges on some of the perpetrators; in the meantime many of those “gentlemen” have vanished.

However, the situation demonstrated how easily a bad situation can get worse. It was noted that the presence of overseas police and military brought back law and order and stymied the looting that affected many on the morning of  7 September.

Unfortunately, despite the curfew, the situation quietly worsened as up to November, as some communities remained in darkness, there were reports of burglaries and thefts.

The situation was brought to the public’s attention during the questions and answers segment of the 13 November sitting of the House of Assembly by Third District Representative Hon. Julian Fraser.

The Third District Representative in lamenting the issue told his colleagues: “Of course there is no more looting — what happens now is that there is theft. They’re not gonna loot, they are stealing our property now. People who have gone into reconstruction they have to store their material off site in order to conduct their construction business because of theft.”

Now that another hurricane season is upon us and some homes are still in need of repairs, people are pondering – How do I loot, theft and burglar proof a broken house? Migrating to Syria or Libya? Why not North Korea?

Question Number Five – What Happened to The Aid?

One of the difficulties of a post Irma BVI was the reality that aid was needed. Items as basic as water or as useful as buckets were donated to a population in need. Still as many in various Districts can speak fondly of what they received, others tell stories of lining up to receive little to nothing or not even knowing that aid was being distributed.

There were reports of wastage in relations to items that were stored on the Festival grounds, but there has been no definitive confirmation.

Nonetheless, the inadequacy of the distribution of aid ended up in the House of Assembly. The matter was brought to the Attention of Hon. Smith during the questions and answers segment of the 13 November House of Assembly sitting following Hon. Smith’s disclosure that the United Kingdom donated a number of relief items in the aftermath of hurricane Irma as well as money.

In noting shock at the announced items that were listed by the Premier as sent by the UK, Hon. Fraser declared: “What food supplies?” in fact, the Opposition Member did not agree that a lot of aid was received as he said that some places and people in the Territory did not benefit and therefore do not know there was relief sent.

Further, Hon. Fraser told the House of Assembly that he did not see the number of items the Premier referred to. “Premier talk to somebody who was on the ground, I was on the ground, food supplies from the UK — you know what they sent us some empty pails, some tarps inadequate for the number of tarps. What food? I haven’t seen any food from the United Kingdom.”

“If they did send it (food) the Third District didn’t get any, and I am sure the other Districts didn’t get any either, so Madame Speaker if the Premier could tell me what food supplies we are talking about. I think he mentioned 40 tons, that’s the equivalent amount of a 20 foot container?”

Still in apparent shock that food was sent to the Territory, Hon. Fraser asked the Premier to clarify: “Are you correct about that, that they sent us food supplies?”

In response Hon. Smith said that he was certain that the food supplies were sent, and he noted as well that some of the food was sent to the sister islands.

By January it was decided that the case of the vanishing aid required looking into. As a result, an investigation was carried out into the processes used to distribute aid to the affected communities throughout the Territory following the impacts of hurricanes Irma and Maria.

According to reports, the matter was investigated by Head of the Community Relations Department and Disaster Coordinator for the Royal Grenada Police Force, Superintendent Sylvan McIntyre who visited the BVI to conduct the audit; which was financed by the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA).

At the end of the day the Aid just disappeared. Now the lingering question is – Who will secure future Aid?

Meanwhile more people begin to believe that the Opposition was right when from day one started to ask: “Where is Government?”