The Islands That Refuse To Quit
Six longtime residents of the British Virgin Islands share how hurricane Irma nearly broke the island nation and how they found the strength to rebuild.
I carefully step around a pile of debris and rusty nails on the ground, stopping in front of what remains of a small yellow church. Its roof and windows are gone, scattered up the hillside by 150-plus-mph winds. The interior has been cleared out, save for a small, waterlogged bible sitting in a puddle in the corner. I look through the windows and admire the rolling green hillside to the left, and, to the right, some of the bluest water I’ve ever seen. It’s impossible to imagine just how beautiful it was before Irma. I try anyway.
Off in the distance I hear the faint sound of children singing. The school’s 27 students—down from 50 before the storm—stand under a white UNICEF tent in neat lines. Wearing skirts, jeans, sandals, and red collared uniforms, the young voices in unison produce a melody that is hauntingly beautiful, especially given the war-zone level of debris surrounding them.
The song ends and the students make their way across the road to their makeshift school, a single-floor building whose second floor was destroyed by Irma; before then it served as a library. Their former school building is unrecognizable, except for a colorful mural that somehow survived the winds and rain.
Lavern Blyden, principal on Jost Van Dyke, stands in the doorway of the school like the fiercely protective den mother she is.
A couple hundred feet away is what remains of the medical center and home of Jullette Ellis, who survived the storm by barricading herself and eight others inside a closet for hours. Her home was destroyed, but, even so, the next day she reported for duty to help those wounded by the storm.
Overseeing construction on Ellis’ home and the makeshift school while fielding phone calls is Melvin Trunbull, second district represetative for the BVIs. Trunbull has become a champion for the islands and their biggest advocate.
Just down the road, Tom Warner, general manager of Foxys, is opening the restaurant and showing a local where she can find a free cup of coffee. He has been serving free meals to the community for months.
These are just a few of the people I met while cruising the BVIs three months after Irma. Each spoke to the spirit of community, which enabled residents to survive the storm and pushed them to rebuild. That spirit also allowed them to reopen their arms to the boating community. Here are more of their stories.
We had 50 students enrolled in school, now we’re down to 27. Many left with their families after the storm. We moved from the original building to a smaller building that’s OK, for now. Some of the students knew the danger of the storm, others didn’t, but I’ve found overall that the children have bounced back easily. Right after the hurricane they were in the water everyday, having fun everyday. In their first three weeks back to school, that was the recovery stage where they got to speak about the hurricane, about their experiences, how they felt, how they feel. They were able to write songs and write poems, and speak out.
School opened back up full time on November 6 and we ran off generators. We just got power today. [Clasps hands together as if to pray.] This was my last day having to buy gas for the generators.
Nature has been very, very important in our recovery. I’ve always had a challenge with some of these beautiful horses behind the school. I could never get rid of them. They left after the storm, but now they’ve returned because the grass is growing green again.
Had you seen this place right after the passage of Irma you’d probably think we would never again see leaves on our trees. Only God has a hand in nature. The trees have brought back life to everyone, to this beautiful island of Jost Van Dyke. We need tourism back. The Soggy Dollar is open, and other businesses are opening, which is a good sign. Tourism is the income for this island; we can’t do without it. —Lavern Blyden, Principal on Jost Van Dyke
We’re seeing more help. Bvivolunteers.com is a site where people can go and indicate what their skills are, whether they want to come for a week or a month. For example, we had a few groups of volunteers on Virgin Gorda and they’ve really helped build it back up. There, the hotels are running, so they’re building houses and the restaurants are providing meals for the workers.
Tourism is our number one earner in our small country of 30,000. That drives our economy and recovery. Boating is so important to the recovery effort and the BVI is still one of the top boating destinations. Some of our hotels are going to take longer to reopen because we’ve spent the last 40 years making them a world-class experience and we don’t want to rebuild to a lesser standard.
The island hopping here is still fantastic. Even if you’re not a super experienced boater it’s comforting that in the BVIs you can always see land. Also, for me, I think the beaches are even more beautiful than before the storm. The beach bar scene and that vintage feeling of visiting here years ago [when it was less crowded] is something to be experienced. —Sharon Flax Brutus, BVI Tourism Director
I see every medical condition come through here; we’re the only clinic on the island [of Jost Van Dyke]. We shut down the day of the storm but reopened the next day. Because of my work I couldn’t go anywhere. I had to stay for the storm. My home is on the second floor of the clinic. We all thought the house was solid and sturdy, so I had eight other people [four of them children] staying with me, too, but when the roof started to roll back and forth we ran to a closet in one room and stayed in there. We grabbed a mattress and tried to use it as a shelter from broken glass and flying objects. It was rough, rough, rough. If you ask me, it felt like I was in that closet for days.
It was rough, but I thank God we came out alive. Staying positive came naturally for me.
Now [three months after Irma] seeing the men at work fixing my home, I see they’re doing a great job. I’m so excited to have my home back. What I’ve learned from the storm is to never take things and people for granted.
We always get a lot of American visitors, especially here on Jost Van Dyke. Now that I have my home back, I’m looking forward to seeing them again. —Jullette Ellis, District Nurse on Jost Van Dyke
If you look up the definition of strength and resilience, you’ll see the picture of people like principal Blyden. She’s been here non-stop around the clock to get the school back up and running for the kids and their families. She may be modest at times, but I don’t have to be. She has taken these children through the devastation. When I look at her and others in this community I see unbelievable energy. I look to people like her for strength and encouragement.
What I want boaters to know is that the BVI suffered tremendous damage but we’re still the cruising capital of the world. What we’re grateful for is the tremendous concern the boating community has had for us. We want people to know what we’ve been through, and we want them back. —Melvin Trunbull, Second District Representative for the BVI
Foxy’s is an iconic beach bar. For the past 50 years Foxy’s has been focused on providing good food and drink to the boating community. Before Irma it was a normal year with big parties and live music. We had hundreds of people here for Foxy’s 75th birthday.
We did what storm prep we could, but there’s only so much you can do. You tried to protect life and limb. In a Category 5 storm things like protecting your furniture don’t really make sense. For us it was a daytime storm, so we saw the damage as it was occurring. At the worst of it we had boats, trees, and houses piled up to the second floor of our building.
The next day we built a tunnel through the debris that surrounded the facility. The debris was like a solid wall. With machetes and a chainsaw we dug from the kitchen coming out. After we dug out, I checked our generator and freezer and both still worked so we cranked up. Irma came through on Wednesday; on Thursday afternoon at 4:00 we were serving a big bowl of black bean chili and cold beer. And we did that for about a month. We operated as a community kitchen.
Some of the other bars brought their food because their generators failed. You didn’t have to work or clean or anything. You just showed up and said you needed food and a cold drink and it was provided.
It’s been a huge amount of work to rebuild. The natural beauty of the place is incredible, the people are incredible. The BVIs will make a full recovery.
In the past people had to rush from one place to another to grab a mooring ball. Now there’s plenty of time; you don’t need to rush, you can slow down and really get to know the people here.
My message to serious boaters is to keep coming. This is a really unique tourism experience, if you want to call it that. The heart of this place is still good, friendly. We’d really love to have people come back and visit.
I think people come to the British Virgin Islands for the natural beauty both above and below the water. But just as important is the natural beauty of the people. The experience today is much more focused on the people who live here and make this place great. —Tom Warner, General Manager of Foxy’s