British humanitarian response charities Serve On and Team Rubicon UK were at the heart of the relief effort in the Hurricane-ravaged British Virgin Islands yesterday as they arrived among the first voluntary agencies in the disaster area.
Harrowing stories and shocking scenes greeted our seasoned experts as they began their desperately-needed work on the BVI’s main island Tortola,
All around them the destruction was overwhelming, with tree slopes as far as the eye could see stripped of vegetation, and trees reduced to virtual matchwood.
Houses were missing roofs, walls or whole sides, whiles some had collapsed completely under the terrifying power of Hurricane Irma.
Wrecked cars littered the roadsides and even the hills, while smashed yachts and speedboats lay beached on the shoreline or bobbed upside down in the bays.
Our team quickly got on with doing whatever they could to help the Caribbean islanders so horrendously affected by the most powerful storm ever recorded in the region; a Category 5 Hurricane which had killed five Virgin Islanders.
Having established that the authorities knew of no missing persons who might require their search and rescue skills, our experts offered their extensive assessment capabilities to the Emergency Operations Centre set up at Peebles hospital in Tortola’s capital, Road Town.
They were assigned the job of finding out the needs of the BVI population and, in particular, vulnerable children, a task they shared with the British military.
As aid began slowly arriving to the islands, our team toured the emergency shelters of far-flung communities to work out where aid should best be delivered, while army officers performed the same role with a list of the islands’ schools.
Our volunteers found people who had lost everything but were showing remarkable resilience and community spirit.
The five members of Serve On and two of Team Rubicon UK interviewed them to find how many were still in the official shelters and what the water, sanitation, health and security situation were there, and they checked out reports of unofficial shelters.
Local politician Andrew Fahie told us the 200 or so people in his constituency in the west of Tortola had lost their water supply system when it was swamped with salt water when the hurricane hit and they desperately needed supplies of fresh water.
At a nearby Methodist church building, the volunteers were told the people taking shelter there only had enough food and water for about three days, had no power and insufficient mattresses, as well as a hole in the roof.
While the north of the islands had been laid waste by the 185mph winds, the south side also suffered a massive storm surge that washed away roads, unearthed graves in cemeteries and submerged coastal homes, all of which our team reported back.
In the fishing village of Carrot Bay, ferry pilot Arthur King said: “Most of the damage around here came from the sea. The waters went right over the post office roof.”
Nearby locals saw the arrival of the Serve On and Team Rubicon team and rushed to thank us for being there and to tell us how they needed drinking water, baby milk and nappies for their infant children.
At Cane Garden Bay, teacher Cleopatra King revealed how her family’s hillside villa home had been washed away from under them, leaving only the foundations.
She said: “The water came up through the kitchen. We were on our bellies on the floor and we didn’t know what to do.”
For three hours they endured the hurricane battering their property before the elements succeeded in tearing it apart and they got out just in time.
She said her husband put his 93-year-old grandfather on his back for the hazardous climb to the relative safety of their neighbour’s house.
Mrs King said she needed four stitches in a wound to her back received during their escape. “I can talk about it now, but it was very scary at the time,” she said.
Up in the hills, in countryside scythed down by Irma, roads were criss-crossed with downed telegraph poles and a cat’s cradle of fallen power lines.
On the Ridge Road, our volunteers found homeowners effectively trapped for days by roads blocked by felled poles and in one place an entire house had collapsed down the hillside on to the road, making it impassable.
In the 28 degrees heat and 82 percent humidity, our team took an hour and a half to clear seven separate blockages, moving tons of poles and house debris.
Elvis Harryan, an accountant living nearby, came out to thank our team and to offer them water.
He said: “I have not been able drive away from my home for five days.” He said he had to make a five mile walk to hospital for stitches to his arm when it was cut during the hurricane which destroyed the three main rooms of his home.
He said: “I was more worried about the young family who live next door. There were four adults and three month-old triplets huddling in one room during the hurricane. At one stage they walked out to escape and were later airlifted out because one of the babies suffered a cut arm.”
Another neighbour said that when the family had sought refuge in the mother’s office in Road Town, they came under attack because it was above a bank that looters tried to rob.
In Tortola’s East End, refugees from the hurricane in a damaged primary school told our volunteers of their lack of drinking water, their worry about rats and their fears about the security situation.
As darkness fell and the night’s curfew was enforced, the team moved to find themselves some basic accommodation, knowing they had much more work to do in the coming days.