On 6th September 2017, tragedy struck.
My hometown on the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands received a direct hit from Hurricane Irma, the strongest Atlantic storm ever recorded with maximum sustained winds of 185mph. Irma ravaged this 60 island British overseas territory (Pop. 30,000) destroying up to 80% of the housing stock and claiming the lives of several residents.
I sat at my desk that morning and watched this unprecedented event unfold on my screen. I repeatedly kept pressing refresh hoping so dearly that the course would change but my worse nightmare came true. I managed to make calls to family on the island who were just waking up but were already without electricity.
I will never forget the moment I spoke to my 82 year old father minutes before the eye wall of the beastly storm descended. Through the howling wind in the background he managed to say, “it is getting rough; part of the roof is damaged and a lot of water is coming in.” I discovered to my horror that the radio stations had failed and they were unaware of the impending Armageddon.
There I stood in the middle of the square at work possibly saying goodbye to my father for the very last time while 4000 miles away. Then I got a final text message from my brother saying that his home was shaking like an earthquake. Then there were several days of silence...
When the first images of the scale and severity of the damage came through my heart broke. The majority of government buildings, schools, clinics, communication towers and other basic infrastructure were destroyed. The entire team at the National Emergency Operations Centre had to run for their lives after the windows on their concrete reinforced building began to explode and were sucked out of the concrete fittings.
The devastation and loss of life and property resulted in the declaration of a State of Emergency. Over 120 prisoners escaped and there were animal carcasses and raw sewage floating in the flood water as the islands were placed under curfew. The scale of this humanitarian disaster overwhelmed the capacity of local governments and the people of the islands had no choice but to wait for the Royal Navy, Royal Airforce and UK Police officers to arrive to stabilise the situation.
Many people survived only with the clothes on their backs and every family was touched. My sister, my aunt and many of my friends and extended family have lost their homes and all their material possessions. My friend Sarah, her 8 month old son and 70 year old mother had to hide in a bathroom with a neighbour for hours after being struck by a flying washing machine. Despite losing part of his roof and spending his birthday sleeping on his sofa, my 82 year old father has taken in a family of 6 including 4 young children who lost everything in the storm.
Sadly, 2 weeks later, another category 5 hurricane, Maria ploughed through the Eastern Caribbean causing further damage to the BVI. Maria also ravaged Dominica (Pop. 70,000) and Puerto Rico (Pop. 3.4 million) two of the neighbouring islands that came to the aid of the BVI after Irma. These unprecedented natural disasters have left hundreds of thousands of people across the region homeless and millions remain without electricity and continue to struggle to meet their basic needs. The islands continue to be under a state of emergency with a military enforced curfew.
These images show how the islands have been completely wiped out and stand completely dark at night due to electricity outage that is thought will last for 6 months. Credit: NOAA, NASA
The excruciating wait for news of family for several days was one of the most difficult experiences of my life. Watching my birthplace destroyed beyond recognition and witnessing the continued suffering of friends, family, old colleagues in the islands has been surreal. The shock of the immediate crisis has gone but the realisation of the difficulties ahead have become a source of anxiety and great sadness. But, despite death, lost possessions and lost livelihoods the people of the Caribbean are determined to rebuild their broken lives.
I have decided to do my bit from London to coordinate meaningful relief to the islands. As the island’s airport begins to reopen, I am preparing to go to the BVI to volunteer in the local hospital in November. While there I will take some basic relief and educational supplies to help people in the islands begin to return to some sense of normalcy.
I ask you to DONATE to help cover the costs of purchasing and transporting the items on this Amazon wish list to the British Virgin Islands. These practical items have been identified by people on the ground as most needed as they are expected to remain without electricity for 6 months. This includes a portable solar powered generator which can provide smoke and noise free power to a classroom, workshop or mobile kitchen. I have partnered with my friend Sarah who runs a local dance school to help distribute items to children in need.