I first visited BVI in Spring 2017. This treasure in the northeast of the Caribbeanhas long been favoured by keen yachtsmen from all over the world because of the constant breeze and fantastic sailing waters. I visited many islands of the Archipelago and for me the trip had been life changing. I met warm, welcoming people and experienced the magnificent birdlife.
I had intended this article to be about this Eden of the tropical islands and its spectacular Nature,
…..then came Irma
On 7th September 2017 Hurricane Irma blasted BVI. It was, according to records, the most powerful storm to have ever hit the Atlantic Ocean. Homes were flattened, the infrastructure - roads, water supply, electricity - were destroyed and the Nature suffered more than we can comprehend.
So this story will be about the BVI’s recovery.
I returned to BVI last Spring, longing to see the islands again, though also fearing the worst. It will take many years for the islands to recover fully, however, despite the brutality of Irma and then Hurricane Maria, local tourism, nature, especially that below the sea have made a rapid recovery and the charter sailing sector is up and running again.
— We had people on the ground in Virgin Gorda right after the devastation, says Suzy Gigante, the Community Engagement Manager at Virgin Unite, a non-profit organisation, that already had employees working on the islands prior to the hurricanes who could be easily mobilised to work on the most urgent projects.
Virgin Atlantic Company arranged special relief flights, sometimes liaising with the UK Department for International Development, to bring aid to BVI. Furthermore, the Branson family have an extensive network who came forward with resources, much needed air and even transportation options in and out to the islands. Friends flew in on their private jets and distributed food, water and other supplies while evacuating vulnerable medical cases, woman and children on their return flights back to America. Sam Branson’s documentary film communicated the immediate aftermath and raised awareness of the disaster around the world.
— It has been truly heartwarming to witness the global outpouring of support for the communities across the Caribbean. We’ve received hundreds of e-mails from people across the world who share the love of the BVI and its wonderful people and who are willing to make their resources available to help in whichever way they can. The first thing we organised was immediate relief aid and evacuations. Through empowering a local NGO group, The Virgin Gorda Recovery and Operations Centre (VGROC) funds and resources went to establish critical water and electricity and help begin the recovery efforts, says Suzy Gigante.
Grants went out to schools and youth programs to help keep students in a safe and secure environment and one school, in particular, became apparent in need. The largest high school in Virgin Gorda, housing nearly 400 students, suffered greatly with the roof being blown off entirely. The Bregado Flax Educational Centre is located in the heart of Spanish Town, en route to the most wellknown tourist attraction in the BVI, the Baths. Because a community needs their schools to be up and running as a sign of normalcy and recovery, the Ministry was able to pull off the unimaginable, they reopened in October 2017, only one month after the destruction. Teachers without roofs and running water at home made the choice to return to schools and begin cleaning up the chaos for the kids. Some were fortunate enough to have temporary structures to start again, while others made do with the remains of a derelict structure that leaks with every rainfall and still is evident of that terrible day in September. To this day, the community is still rebuilding roofs and the school is only partially operational. Unite BVI has committed to the rebuild of the High School with the ambitious timeline of completion in December 2018.
Rebuilding better and stronger
Kim Takeuchi had been on a private Island in the North Sound when Irma hit the BVI. We meet in Leverick Bay in Virgin Gorda, a small harbour with its marina, hotels and restaurants back in business remarkably operating just as usual. Kim is one of the Operation Managers at Unite BVI, a registered nonprofit in the BVI for the benefit of the BVI and supported by the Branson Family. The Virgin organisation was established in 2016 and had already started working with local environmental, entrepreneurial and community projects but was now catapulted into an essential vehicle for action. Unite BVI’s team grew exponentially from two to five full time positions and has been supported by a large group of supporters most notably, the international nonprofit entity Virgin Unite.
— The first thing I thought when I got to Virgin Gorda was that it looked completely devastated. We were horrified about how the hurricane had damaged everything, sparring nothing as far as the eye could see. But at the same time the resonating emotion was pure gratitude for simply being alive and reuniting with friends and family. We were so grateful to still be living. There were four tragic deaths in the hurricane, so we were blessed”, says Kim, her tone becoming somber and sympathetic as she mentions the ones who were lost.
The major issue right after the hurricane was to reestablish shelters, secure food and clean water and the most challenging, was to find ways to communicate. No one considers how difficult it would be without power, cel phones and internet capacity. There were a few Satellite radios available but most of our comms were done by marine radios. The radios only stretched across limited distances and mostly needed line of site to work, so once you were over the hillside, you were no longer connected to the North Sound.
We became very scheduled with regular meetings and check ins with various groups. We had to go over the hillside into the Valley, gather information and then bring it back to the North Sound. Each day, at a scheduled time we would call out by sat phone to our support teams in the US and UK and make requests for medical supplies, food, tools and anything else of immediate need, Kim explains.
Virgin Gorda is a small island with roughly 3000 inhabitants, but it has a massive community spirit. This event brought people together, gave them a sense of purpose and a new perspective and they become resourceful, creative, solution oriented problem solvers.
Many private donors, some residents and some repeat tourists came to help with resources and supplies distributed across the British Virgin Islands. It will likely take many years to recover fully and their generous contributions have helped get a foundational restart on the repair to damage and the rebuilding of critical infrastructure.
— Mr Branson put his notoriety to good use inspiring an International network across the world and with his blogs and social media he has managed to reach out to so many people who in turn have sent donations. 100% of donations will go to the needs of the community and environment Virgin Unite recently posted an on-line update it information on how those funds are currently going towards projects that have a long term impact in the islands. Campaigns on our website had a huge international impact and many people who didn’t even know the whereabouts of the BVI donated money. We had never received so much support in such a short time, she says.
Everyone pulled together, jumped into action and the immediate relief aid was a success. However there is a need to implement a strategic plan for the long term resilience in the event of further hurricanes. After Irma the islanders have taken the opportunity to investigate greener, stronger and more resilient infrastructure options, such as adopting alternative energy and developing a decentralized power system. An appointed, BVI lead Recovery and Development Agency (RDA) is working in close association with the government to implement this strategy.
Unite BVI doesn’t just do one thing, they focus on projects across a broad scope of topics: Environmental conservation, Supporting Entrepreneurship as a Force of Good and Empowering the Community, in particular with projects in Education. Their basic strategy is to identify the needs and bridge resources through what they do best: Unite! Partnerships with other grantors have given them the opportunity to procure 650 computers that will give senior students in the public schoolsystem resources to continue their studies regardless of the structures that evidently will take a couple of years to rebuild. By supporting small business recovery, entrepreneurs are being empowered by access to micro loan with easy payback terms to help get their businesses back on track and adjust to the new markets and opportunities.
— After Irma I also had to adjust my daily life. I bought a truck, and I always have gloves and recycling bags in the boot. We have a lot of mess to clean up, says Kim with a big smile.
Debbie Carcon is a Branson Centre Official Entrepreneur and a talented artist who was hired by a repeat Necker island guest to bring to life a community spirit project at the Bregado Flax Education Centre. They gave the street facing wall a fresh look with vibrant paint and art deco design for tourists and residents to see every time they pass by. Volunteers passing by joined in and continued the good work side by side with students and the district art teacher.
The Kodiak Queen
During a 2016 Virgin Unite gathering, a group of partners committed to building an artificial reef by sinking a World War two Royal Navy fuel barge called the Yo-44, later renamed as an Artic fishing vessel, the Kodiak Queen. This Unite BVI project had a purpose to not only clean up the Tortola coastline but also to amplify the message about the importance of ocean conservation. The artificial reef is a project that shows our support of inspiring the next generation of ocean conservationists. Many local Islanders have never been under the sea in their own backyard, proceeds from the Kodiak Queen will go towards providing swim programs for islanders and help connect our youth with the incredible resource just outside their front doors. The artificial reef will also help to restore the local marine ecosystem and support efforts in establishing marine protected areas and sustainable fishing methods over the forthcoming decades. The Kodiak Queen now doubles as a bed for coral growth and safe spawning ground for larger marine species and the newest tourist dive/snorkel site just off the coast of Virgin Gorda.
Seeds of love
Initiating new growth is a BVI Tourist Board project that sees an opportunity at hand. Seeds of Love aims to replant the island’s indigenous tree species and vegetation which had been destroyed by Irma and Maria.
The plan originally began when Gabi Romberg, of the BVI’s German agency, saw the damage to fauna caused by the hurricanes and started a fundraising drive to buy coconut palms to plant along the fringes of the islands’ beaches.
Then, the government of St Vincent and the Grenadines donated 3,000 fruit trees to the BVI, and thus the Seeds of Lovecampaign was born, spearheaded by BVI Director of Tourism, Sharon Flax-Brutus.The Tourist Board purchased a further 3,000 coconut seedlings and saplings in order to bolster the programme and now Seeds of Love is planting throughout the territory. And, besides planting coconuts along beaches, the Tourist Board is partnering with other local government agencies and ministries to allow for planting in many different public spaces. Reforestation is necessary for establishing resilience.
Oil Nut Bay employs to give support
David Johnson is a successful businessman who is developing a large piece of land in the North Sound of Virgin Gorda, where he is building real estate and a resort which will offer luxury for guests and employment for islanders.
— Of course we were shocked that Irma had destroyed so many years of work, not so much for us, because our houses were new and constructed with solid materials, but for the rest of Virgin Gorda, where the older wooden houses were almost all gone. The most important thing was to keep our workers in employment and create new jobs so they could support their families”, says Mr Johnson.
The North Sound Foundation (NSF), founded by David Johnson and his wife Pamela has assisted in various relief and rebuilding projects in the Virgin Gorda community. Thanks to generous donations from Oil Nut Bay’s homeowners, the NSF will restore the Robinson O’Neal Memorial Primary School including designs and features that will ensure the school will withstand future hurricanes. The NSF provides support to a local Caribbean non-profit organisation which assists environmental, cultural, educational, health and social programmes throughout North Sound and Spanish Town.
Future Carbon Neutral Luxury Resort
It is rare to find a place so luxurious which has all its homes built in harmony with Nature and is not causing any damage to the environment.Accessible only by boat or helicopter, this is a community that aims to combine an abundance of green space with all the comforts of a sustainable modern life and reach a goal of being carbon neutral. Regarding environmental care, the focus will be on using solar power, investing in efficient water management and planning low density construction. Many properties are built withgreen roof technology which will help blend the houses into their natural surroundings.
— Building in such beautiful surroundings brings responsibilities and I am taking my legacy very seriously. Composting and recycling are used throughout the island and residents are encouraged to use electric carts instead of cars. Trophy architecture is strictly forbidden - we don’t want oneupmanship. So far around a third of the buyers are Europeans and we are going to build on that in the future”, says David Johnson, whose father migrated to the United States from Sweden at the end of the last century.
— I spent ten years touring the world before I found this stunning beauty and political stability in the Caribbean”. After 30 years of creating a succession of developments, Johnson says this will be his last one and it is here he wants to spend the rest of his life.
David Johnson has agreed withthe authorities that there will be no more than 88 villas onthe 400 acreplot; there isalreadyworld-class dining, a Beach Club, watersports, a well equipped spa, tenniscourtsand pickle-ball. The community offers the benefits of a world class resort with first rate amenities and, withonly a modest number of homes, there is an atmosphere of privacy.
Trophy architecture is strictly forbidden, we don’t want one-upmanship, says David Johnson.
Some of the islands of BVI
Covering a mere eight square miles, Virgin Gorda is the third largest island among the BVI and has a population of almost 3,000 inhabitants. Almost everyone I speak with has experienced a similar thing; the neighbourly act of opening their home to others in need. That is what Irma left; the generosity between fellow islanders and everyone who has come together to help each other.It’s about turning the devastation left by a hurricane into a new opportunity for rebuilding back stronger and greener.Nail Bay is a private development surrounded by a National Park, Hog Heaven, a BBQ restaurant with the absolute best view of the North Sound private Islands.
While many resorts have postponed their dates for reopening to late 2018, the Cooper Island Beach Club was one of the first resorts to return to business, opening its doors for guests on 1st April 2018.Whilst the effects of the hurricanes were devastating. They lost many of their decks, boardwalks and docks, some of the buildings and sustained heavy damage to the solar equipment attached to twelve of the rooms. But things are on the mend! The team is working hard to get things back on track and the good news is that the solar powered microbrewery survived, so we’ll have plenty of homemade beer for our guests.
The best cup of coffee in the archipelago
There are five privately owned properties on the island, as well as a small beach club resort, a bio-restaurant and also a coffee shop serving an impressive selection of different coffees. Cooper Island is one of the most popular stops for yachtsmen sailing along the Sir Francis Drake Channel, as well as being a hot spot for locals on their days off.Just off the island is an old shipwreck where visitors can dive and it is fun to kayak along the shores. There are two versions about how the island gained its name: One claims that it comes from the first settlers, a Dutch family called Koop, while the other is that coopers - makers of barrels - came here to collect the island’s white cedar which they used to make casks for storing rum.
Flat Anegada Island was the island least damaged by the hurricanes. It is known for miles of white sand beaches. Here you’ll also find 29 kilometers horseshoe Reef, the largest barrier coral reef in the Caribbean and the fourth largest on earth.
Undoubtedly, everyone suffered in some way from the horror of the hurricanes. And then, together, they came together to rebuild their community and homes. This shared experience created warm bonds and a generous spirit between islanders and residents: Doors are open, visitors are welcome.
That is a legacy of Irma.
Text & Photo Annelie Karlsson,
photo copyright Virgin Unite and Oil Nut Bay