British Virgin Islands: ‘Knocked Down, but Not Knocked Out’ by Irma

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A report by Luis Ferré-Sadurní for the New York Times.

This little island draws boats from all around the globe to its powdery beaches and ebullient bar scene. Thousands of visitors come for the boisterous New Year’s Eve celebration at Foxy’s — a wooden beachside bar decorated with the license plates and flags that visitors have left behind since the 1960s.

But after Hurricane Irma’s winds annihilated many of the homes here on Jost Van Dyke, one of the British Virgin Islands, Foxy’s Tamarind Bar and Restaurant has become something else entirely: the island’s de facto command center and lifeline.

Without electricity, running water or telephone lines, the island’s 298 inhabitants have been marooned, forced to survive with what they salvaged: a satellite phone, a chain saw, a week’s worth of food.

There is little to no government presence on the ground, but there is Foxy’s — which has some of the island’s only generators. Beneath the bar’s tattered roof, residents ration supplies and cook meals twice a day for most of the island.

“Anyone that comes, we feed,” said Tom Warner, the bar’s general manager.

A week after Hurricane Irma roared through the Caribbean, leaving more than two dozen dead, residents of the British Virgin Islands vowed resilience, taking it upon themselves to restore some sense of normalcy in the battered archipelago.

Many residents said the British government in London, which oversees the islands, has been sluggish to attend to their dire situation, so residents have had to band together.

“We’re an isolated territory,” said Christine Perakis, a resident of Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands.

Jost Van Dyke, the smallest, was ravaged almost beyond recognition.

Green hillsides have been replaced with a brownish landscape of bare tree trunks and white debris. Sydney’s Peace and Love, a bar popular for its lobster, was smashed to rubble by a ferry thrown onto the beach. The red floor boards were all that remained at Harris’ Place, a restaurant.

The island’s two gas stations, clinic and primary school: all heavily damaged. Soggy Dollar Bar, where the drink known as the Painkiller is said to have originated: mostly in rubble.

“It makes you sad to think everything can be wiped out in one second,” said Leeroy Isaac, a resident of Jost Van Dyke.

But immediately after the hurricane, the tight-knit community of locals began to rebuild.

They re-established road access by Friday afternoon using the salvaged chain saw to clear trees that had left parts of the island disconnected. An informal census was conducted and locals were accounted for.

One resident used a satellite phone to communicate with boaters transporting supplies from nearby Puerto Rico. Food stocks salvaged from the island’s restaurants were consolidated at Foxy’s working refrigerators.

There, residents have gathered to organize cooking shifts, and set up a makeshift bulletin with notices and rules of conduct.

“The food is for everyone,” read one flier. “Please conserve. Don’t litter. Children: If you are old enough to read this, then you are old enough to help.”

And in the last couple of days, they said, British helicopters have begun delivering food supplies. Government aid has also been brought in by boat, and a team of technicians was sent on Thursday morning to begin setting up telecommunications, local officials said.

“It’s a little frustrating, but all in all, we have life,” said Addison Phillip, behind the wheel of his black Jeep, left without a windshield by the hurricane. “You just have to go day by day.”

About 75,000 people, most of them British citizens, live on the Caribbean territories of Anguilla, Turks and Caicos, and the British Virgin Islands — each of which suffered substantial damage from Hurricane Irma.

Accused by lawmakers of failing to take adequate precautions to protect the territories more than 4,000 miles away, the British government had begun ratcheting up its aid in the territories by Thursday.

The government announced it was planning to spend at least 57 million pounds, or about $77 million, to fund disaster relief efforts in the Caribbean. More than 1,000 British troops have been deployed to the region and, with help from the private sector, thousands of shelter kits, solar lanterns, water bottles and food supplies, have been sent to the isles, the government said on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, visited the British islands, reassuring them the government was there “for the long term.”

“The hurricane can come in, it can knock down absolutely everything in its path but it can’t bow or bend the spirit of the British Virgin Islands,” Mr. Johnson said on Tortola, where more than 20,000 people live.

Residents were also taking solace in incremental improvements: A.T.M.s were working again, and parts of Road Town, the territory’s capital, had power back, Ms. Perakis said. Residents who had been left homeless were volunteering to help repair the island’s frayed power grid.

“There’s a lot of good deeds going on,” Ms. Perakis, a business growth specialist, said over the phone from her home overlooking Road Town.

But here, as in the rest of the Caribbean region, there is still a long recovery ahead for the islands known as a playground for the wealthy and the sailing capital of the world. The tourism industry accounts for one in four jobs here, according to the government.

Basic infrastructure remains fractured on the majority of the islands. Famed resorts like the Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda were completely razed. Residents said they had waited up to three hours in lines outside supermarkets and food pantries on Tortola.

And the government has imposed a curfew as it deals with security problems.

Supermarkets and electronics stores were looted in the two days after the hurricane, Mark Vanterpool, the minister of communications and works, said in an interview. About 168 inmates, most serving minor criminal sentences, escaped after the hurricane damaged the territory’s prison on Tortola, Mr. Vanterpool said.

“The prison was compromised, the roof was broken and the fence of the building was compromised,” Mr. Vanterpool said. “Many of them have come back to the prison. Many of them left to check on their families and realized that they should not be out.”

The police have captured some of the prisoners, he said, adding that the islands were “back to a fair sense of normalcy.” The government expects the commercial sector to be up and running by December, and most resorts to be open for business within a year, he said.

“We’ve been knocked down, but not knocked out,” Mr. Vanterpool added.

Relief efforts for the region have come from near and far.

Richard Branson, the English business mogul and founder of the Virgin Group, weathered the hurricane inside a wine cellar in his home on Necker Island, which he owns. Although his home was destroyed, Mr. Branson has spearheaded relief efforts and has called for a “Disaster Recovery Marshall Plan” in the islands.

Many residents were away for the season, or “off-island,” as people here say, during the hurricane. Yet thousands of people with a connection to the islands, residents, ex-residents and loyal tourists, have organized on social media to share updates, and organize evacuations and fund-raisers.

At Jost Van Dyke, locals continued to help out at Foxy’s, finding some joy amid the disaster.

Fish and chips were served for lunch and a stock of beer had been saved for a party to celebrate the hurricane’s one-week anniversary on Wednesday night.

The party had a name: “The Irma Special.”

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