Disaster response volunteers from Serve On and Team Rubicon UK extended their humanitarian work in the wake of Hurricane Irma, yesterday, as they pushed out from the largest of the British Virgin Islands to assess the damage in nearby Virgin Gorda, and found themselves in collaboration with Richard Branson.
Like the main island, Tortola, just 20 kms away, Virgin Gorda had found itself in the direct path of the Category 5 Hurricane’s devastating winds and had suffered similarly catastrophic outcomes.
At one end of the island, virtually no house was left standing by the killer storm which had sustained winds of 185mph and recorded gusts up to an unimaginable 220mph.
Our seven-man team’s assessment of the needs of the homeless people and vulnerable children of Tortola had been welcomed by the BVI’s Emergency Operation Centre.
Officials there had then tasked them with filling the gaps in knowledge about the effects the Hurricane had had on outlying parts of Virgin Gorda.
The five members of Serve On and two from Team Rubicon UK joined forces with the local volunteers of the Virgin Islands Search and Rescue unit (VISAR) who provided a fast RIB (rigid inflatable boat) to carry them and their life-saving kit on a 40-minute ride to discover the destruction on Gorda.
The surreal experience of weaving between sunken super-yachts on departure from Nanny Cay Marina, Tortola, was repeated as the RIB skipper picked a path through the multi-million dollar ship’s graveyard to enter the harbour at Virgin Gorda’s capital, Spanish Town.
A local ferry lay upside down on the beach in the approach to the port, like some grisly warning before the gates to chaos.
Inside the harbour the carnage was everywhere to behold and it continued into the heart of Spanish Town, known to locals as The Valley, with upturned cars lying crushed where they had been carelessly tossed aside by the howling storm.
Looking around, it was incredible for our experts to believe that there had been no fatal casualties of Irma on Virgin Gorda.
Local VISAR representative Simon Fox, who greeted us, told us of his own family’s horror during the hurricane as they cowered in a room and he desperately hung on to the handle of the door for hours as the winds tried to tear it open, bowing it at top and bottom, with rain pouring through the gap.
He told of another family who fled with their young children from their home as Irma tore it apart and took shelter in a neighbour’s house until that too started to collapse.
He said the family watched sheets of razor sharp tin roofing slicing past them through the air at more than 150mph and had to take a chance that no more were coming before running the gauntlet of the hurricane to another place of safety.
As she did so, one of the mums fell flat on her face, with her child in her arms, but managed to get up and kept on running, mercifully avoiding the hail of debris, any piece of which could have killed them.
Yesterday, though the weather was calm, the trauma still remained for many islanders, but in spite of the sunken ferry’s ominous portents, the welcome from the local people for our experts could not have been warmer.
We found a community battered and broken, with shortages of food and water, no power or communications, and a shortage of shelter, but very far from beaten.
They had already set up the Virgin Gorda Recovery Base Team in the closed town centre bank, distributing charity donations of baby clothes and nappies from fellow islanders who were in a position to give them, and sorting out boat and road trips for the BVI’s re-opened Beef Island airport for those who wanted to escape the carnage.
Food was laid on in a building opposite and a tanker arrived soon after our team, bearing precious potable water from the de-salination plant at Richard Branson’s neighbouring Nekker Island.
Elsewhere in the capital, impressive members of Mr Branson’s staff helped organise local people to cope with the aftermath of the disaster as best they could after they had earlier realised that their efforts to look after Virgin workers there would also help other islanders.
Our joint Serve On/Team Rubicon UK team also set about doing what they could do for the people of Virgin Gorda.
As Serve On International Response Team members Garry Wonnacott and Andy Harris examined the town’s generator, which had been rendered inoperable in the Hurricane, team medic Tom Hales attended to an islander who had suffered a gaping leg wound from a flying sheet of galvanised tin roofing during the hurricane.
Other members of the joint mission, including Team Rubicon UK member Lizzy Stileman, went in search of precious fuel to run the team’s water filtration equipment to produce even more precious drinking water.
The team meanwhile helped locals set up three vast water tanks to receive the de-salinated water, and to mosquito-proof them.
With today (Wednesday) marking seven days since the Hurricane brought widespread flooding, amid other destruction, to the island, the people are expecting the fast-breeding mosquitoes to imminently arrive in a plague.
The only thing they fear as much as the mosquitoes is the looters who have cashed in on the tragedy, not least pirates from Tortola attracted to the many millionaires’ holiday homes that lie empty on the island at this time of year and would have been torn open by Irma’s winds.
The islanders were heartened by the arrival, just before curfew time, of armed Royal Marines on the island.
Our team, meanwhile, hunkered down in a disused building ready to try today to reach the devastated North end of Virgin Gorda where precious few homes have reportedly been left intact and where any help will be desperately needed.
A further three Team Rubicon UK / Serve On teams of experts have arrived in Antigua and in Turks and Caicos and are integrating into the local response.