Part One: The Problem
Do you remember where you were on the evening of September 6? We were having dinner with friends from our Bible study group and glued to any news about Hurricane Irma which had already devastated Barbuda and St. Martin and was bludgeoning the British Virgin Islands. BVI has been our sentimental second home since the late 1990’s and is home to our Beneteau 50, Mary Jewell. The news was skimpy but all bad. When we could scrounge a photo or two, the images were shocking. The most iconic photo to emerge from all the photos of wreckage and devastation was from Tortola’s Paraquita Bay, the “hurricane hole” used by all the BVI charter companies and some individual boat owners. It was packed with more than 300 monohulls and catamarans ranging from 38 to 58 feet and representing many millions of dollars of OPM–“other people’s money.” Charter companies don’t own their boats, they belong to clients around the world and are managed by the charter companies. When Irma hit Paraquita she tore all the boats off their heavily chained orderly moorings and raked them into one corner of the bay. Most lost their masts, many were upside down; all were distressed.
It would be shortsighted and selfish to worry about damage to all those water toys when people’s homes, jobs, and lives were being threatened. Many homes in tropical areas are built of poured concrete, not 2×4 pine veneered with vinyl siding or brick like in Bowling Green. But roofs and windows are vulnerable and when trees, roofing metal, and even automobiles become projectiles driven by 200 mph winds, nothing is safe. People huddled all day in the safest corners of their homes or schools or businesses and waited for the merciless wind to abate. When it finally did, BVI was ruined. Concrete walled residences were ripped open. Landmarks like the Bitter End Yacht Club had been scraped from the hillside. Irma left BVI residents in the dark and cut off from each other and from the outside world. The electric grid was demolished. Roads were impassible, either washed away or clogged with debris. Telephones were inoperable with land lines and cell phone towers blown away. The islands that had been green the day before Irma, were now brown with every leaf stripped from the trees and bushes that remained. An eerie silence prevailed–no birds or frogs or insects dared to make a sound.
Irma’s destruction was more than physical. When BVI residents ventured outside their hiding places, they found that the social order was gone. The government was broken and incapable of maintaining order. Irma had bashed the prison open and the inmates were freed. Even more threatening, people who were not convicts became criminals as looting swept the islands. BVI began to resemble a scene from Mad Max. A friend of ours named it Irmageddon.
Order was restored several days later when the British navy arrived and began patrolling the islands (BVI has 4 major populated islands and a few outposts on smaller islands). The navy also delivered food, water, and medical aid. But they were not the first to supply help to BVI. The Puerto Rican Navy arrived within a day or two of the hurricane. The Puerto Rican Navy is simply a group of Puerto Ricans who loaded their power boats with all sorts of relief supplies and rushed to help fellow islanders in need. One man on Jost Van Dyke told us how sad they felt that when Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria two weeks after Irma, BVI could do nothing to help them.
Three months after Irma visited BVI, life has returned in a crippled kind of way. The capital city of Road Town has electricity and running water, but the rest of BVI would still be in the pre-electric Stone Age without generators. Land line telephone service may never return. Debris is piled into mountains of wood, metal, and glass waiting for incineration or recycling. The masts of many boats point in any direction but upward. Ferry boats still are beached on various shores. One 85-foot ferry boat lies upside down on what was once Sydney’s Peace and Love restaurant on Jost Van Dyke. Many businesses are open and trying to function, but don’t count on using a credit card–that requires operating infrastructure. The most invisible part of BVI’s loss is the loss of jobs. Without a charter fleet, there is no tourism; without tourism, restaurants, grocery stores and dive shops have fewer customers to serve. Progress is evident, but the Paradise that was lost in 12 hours won’t be found again in 12 weeks or even 12 months. Restoration of Paradise is a long way off.
So where do we fit into this scene? We needed to go to BVI to see about Mary Jewell—she had been severely damaged by Irma and communications from BVI were minimal at best. We needed to be there to deal with the insurance company. But this seemed more personal than settling an insurance claim on our boat. After enjoying BVI for 20+ years and knowing many people there by their first names, we felt that we should do something to help. We began by giving some money to rebuild a school. That’s useful but impersonal. So we decided to go there and find a place to help restore this broken BVI to the way we had come to know it. And our sailboat Escapade could provide a mobile base to work from. There wouldn’t be any hotels to stay in, and if there were, local people would need them. Escapade can sleep 6-8 people comfortably. There wouldn’t be any electricity to charge phones or power tools, but Escapade has a generator. There might not be enough clean water to drink, but Escapade has a water maker. There would be a shortage of building supplies and tools, but Escapade could transport many items from the USA.
We knew we couldn’t just show up at the dock and say “We are here to help,” so we thought about a way to connect with an organization that would continue when we left. Churches are often at the center of community life so we decided to choose a church to work with. We went to the internet to find a church that seemed to fit our resources and would be accessible from the sea. We found Cane Garden Bay Baptist Church and we liked what we read about it and its pastor on the church website.
New hurdle: How to connect with them? The telephone listed on the website was a land line and was out of service. No mobile phone was listed. I found a restaurant in Cane Garden Bay that had a working email address and asked them to deliver my message to the church’s pastor. When we finally got in touch he was happy to welcome a small relief crew from a faraway state with no ocean front, no salt water, no hurricanes–Kentucky. (to be continued)