As I shared last week, it has now been two years since the ferocious Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the BVI, causing devastation that was hard to comprehend.
Walking around Virgin Gorda after the hurricane had passed was heart-breaking. The landscape was razed, it look like it had been hit by a bomb. Lives were lost, homes and schools were flattened, livelihoods completely disrupted and core infrastructure destroyed.
In the immediate aftermath we helped support disaster relief efforts to make sure people had the basics of food, water, medical supplies, clothing and shelter. We had employees and volunteers visit shelters and speak to the relevant authorities about what the most pressing aid needs were, and then we shipped aid in via containers, planes, our yacht Necker Belle and Virgin Atlantic flights from the UK to Antigua. We supported the Red Cross Hurricane Irma Emergency Relief Fund, and disaster response charity Team Rubicon UK and Serve On, who deployed teams of employees and specialist volunteers to help immediately on the ground. It was also great seeing Virgin Atlantic volunteers pitch in to help repair one of the main public high schools. In the months following the hurricanes, Virgin Unite and Unite BVI looked carefully at where we could have the best impact to help the people of the BVI. The areas we are focusing on are community, education, entrepreneurship and the environment.
It’s been inspiring to see the indomitable spirit of people in the BVI, even in the face of such a huge challenge. I’ve never been prouder to call the BVI my home.
It’s also been inspiring to see people come together to talk about how we can collaborate to try and address the challenges we've been faced with. We have been working with many different partners, including various ministries within the BVI Government, The FCO, the Recovery and Development Agency, specialist NGOs such as The MacLain Association for Children, The BVI Autism Centre, Falconwood Foundation, UNICEF, Team Rubicon UK, Youth Empowerment Project, Guana Fund, All Hands & Hearts and so many more.
We have rebuilt over 15 public high school classrooms across the two most inhabited islands (Tortola and Virgin Gorda). We have supported families living in shelterbox tents, providing them with safe, hurricane resilient homes, while helping those living in difficult conditions to receive electricity, running water and septic systems. We have supported community projects, such as putting in a playground at the local Autism Center and Children's Home, and donated resources for special needs education and occupational therapy equipment for the elderly and disabled. We're in the process of restoring community spaces and parks that will freely benefit our communities.
As so much needed to be rebuilt after the hurricanes, it was time to think how we could do things better. Waste management is often a tricky issue for islands. We have been supporting the advancement of recycling. 20 recycling bins have been placed in various communities and at schools. Equipment needed by social entrepreneurs to recycle plastic, glass and aluminium have been donated to a local non-profit organisation that is working to catalyse a national recycling system and a Recycling Programme Manager has been hired. It’s great to see 11 businesses paying into a Green Fund, which uses its earning to support the recycling system.
In recognition that many jobs were lost due to the two largest industries being hit hard by the storms (tourism and the financial industry), we have decided to fund trade-skill development programmes to create employment opportunities in emerging markets (construction and maritime).
To support entrepreneurs we have offered interest-free, no down-payment or collateral necessary, customised repayment terms small business loans to help businesses get back on their feet after the storms, to provide more jobs and job security and to stimulate the economy.
Meanwhile, so many schools were damaged by the storms that students have been on a split shift system (in school for only half a day), so we've supported dozens of youth programmes that offer positive recreational and education based activities and mentorship.
It is an important priority to try and restore the BVI’s beautiful environment so that wildlife and the ocean can thrive once again and tourism can help boost the local economy. We will be supporting a mangrove rehabilitation project as they are so important for ocean health and resilience. There are some exciting renewable energy initiatives we are keen to support moving forward too; we are all responsible for being better stewards of our planet's health.
There is a still work to be done, but I’m so inspired by all the teams across so many organisations that we have supported who are dedicated to helping the region get back on its feet.