In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Team Rubicon have been working with Virgin Unite to bring practical, immediate and vital help to affected communities across the BVI.
Below, Lizzy Stileman, a member of Team Rubicon, shares her story about the shock and devastation the hurricanes brought, how they differed from other emergencies she’s worked on, and what’s next for affected communities in the BVI.
Team Rubicon, accompanied by Serve On, was the first team on the ground after the hurricanes struck. The local population were absolutely delighted to see us – though they had no expectations about what we could do for them.
Personally, I had never seen anything like this before. The local population all needed basic provisions to survive, nobody had running water or power, and initially there was a shortage of food. 90 per cent of the island was without mobile communication and most people were therefore without any sort of news or information – they were totally cut off.
The devastation caused across the islands was unrelenting – nowhere escaped the powerful winds. Miles upon miles of debris has been scattered, without a single leaf left on any of the trees. Trees, cars, trucks, air-conditioning units, super yachts and speed boats – everything was randomly scattered across the island. The marinas had boats floating upside-down, masts broken and some stacked on top of each other.
Likewise, the hills had remnants of cars hanging off the sides of the steep slopes. Cars moved around without windscreens and had extraordinarily large dents all over them. The small roads, which wind their way around the island, were covered in debris, and the ones adjacent to the sea, totally washed away. Telegraph poles were scattered at different angles along the roadside with wires hanging perilously from them.
Team Rubicon were the first outside assistance the islanders had seen. We were welcomed with open arms, and the small community could not do enough to help us. The Virgin Gorda Search and Rescue (VISAR) moved us from Tortola to Virgin Gorda and then directly on to the make-shift recovery base (which was then set up as the hub where the recovery effort was trying to be coordinated from).
In my over 20 years of field experience I had never been to an area which hadn’t had any outside assistance before I arrived. Thankfully the military and the UK police arrived soon after us and had a significant impact. But when we arrived, there was nothing and the gratitude before we had even done anything was overwhelming.
Our accommodation was rustic. Mosquitos were a constant issue and there was initially nowhere to wash or clean ourselves. We had taken our own food and water purification systems – so were self-sufficient. After arriving on Virgin Gorda members of our team familiarised themselves with the occasional Wi-Fi hubs, which allowed them to attend community briefings run by Virgin Unite.
These were outstanding events, held at the same time every day. The Virgin staff members were exceptional, giving practical advice and definitive information about how and where to access the limited food and water available. I was constantly impressed with the Virgin Unite staff and it was a pleasure to work with them. They were professional, diligent and very hard working.
We worked together with Serve On for the first three weeks of my deployment. Serve On must be acknowledged in this as much as Team Rubicon. We were all totally self-sustained and did not require food, water or accommodation. I felt very comfortable that we were not going to impact on the overburdened logistic chain. Made up of mainly ex-military and blue light services, the teams did not mind the austerity of the living conditions. Everybody had a role and we were able to input and make a difference.
Another thing that really impressed me about the response was that it was entirely community focused. We set up The Incident Command System (ICS) to mentor the locals and help locals own and run the support systems. The people of these islands continue to astonish us with their generosity and adaptability. Short term work, such as cleaning out debris in schools and clinics has been carried out, but it’s not over, far from it. There are so many people without homes and so many people who’ve lost everything they owned. People are working together but this will be a long process.
Virgin Gorda is fragile and they are still in hurricane season until the end of October. Irma has changed lives forever. There is now a focus on rebuild the island in a more sustainable, durable way. It’s time to think long term for all properties. Virgin Gorda has an opportunity to start again, but this will require money, forethought and careful planning.
Virgin Gorda is ‘nature’s little secret’ and only now, a month on, is it starting to show small signs of recovery. However, there is so much still to do. There are still houses without any roofs, cars are scattered around the countryside and there is still no running water. Aid is slowly reaching the island, but it is not always what’s needed and getting the aid distributed is not easy. There is still so much work to do here and there are so many people suffering. It will take years to recover, but it will recover.
- This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.
To help further support the affected communities please donate to the BVI Community Support Appeal and help us build a better, cleaner, stronger and more sustainable Caribbean region.