Island nation recovers from hurricane twosome
The economy and tourism in the British Virgin Islands is storming back after two fierce and deadly category 5 hurricanes slammed ashore in September 2017, with picturesque anchorages and powdery, white-sand beaches again luring visitors.
The tiny island nation of about 31,000 took a direct hit by Hurricane Irma and a few weeks later, more of a glancing blow by an equally powerful Hurricane Maria, which caused devastation in nearby Puerto Rico.
It’s the first time ever that the British Virgin Islands (BVI) has been hit by a category 5 storm, and two named and powerful hurricanes in a row was unprecedented for this Caribbean country that likes to boast that it is “the sailing capital of the world.”
Both of these hurricanes came ashore during a very active summer storm season in the Atlantic in 2017, and sent the country reeling. It’s taken many months for the residents and business owners to piece things back together, and some are still not there yet.
First to barrel in was Hurricane Irma, the strongest Atlantic storm ever recorded in open water, with wind speeds topping a harrowing 185 mph (298 km/h). About five people died, although some deaths may have resulted from medical complications afterward.
On the heels of Hurricane Irma, as the cleanup began to gather momentum, along came Irma’s ugly twin sister, Hurricane Maria, which brought even more destruction. Over a year later, there are still many signs of how fierce these storms really were.
In late November 2018, fourteen months after the hurricanes barrelled inland, abandoned sailboats litter some of the anchorages, some homes and businesses remain boarded up, and a lonely Anglican church sits exposed to the elements, without a roof or front doors.
In some bays, badly damaged yachts are still laying on their sides, half submerged, while other boats were picked up by winds and blown completely out of the water and into nearby mangrove swamps, where transoms and bows stick out here and there.
Someone propped up a makeshift plastic skeleton, replete with a wig, behind the wheel of one of the many now-abandoned ghost boats.
Some houses completely disappeared in the fierce swirling winds which, to make matters worse, spawned tornados. Many buildings lost roofs or even second storeys. Some residents had to open doors and windows during the storms to let the winds pass through their homes in an attempt to save their roofs.
The destruction covered most of the BVIs, made up of about 60 islands, many small and uninhabited. Making up this compact and largely mountainous archipelago of just 59 square miles are four main islands and population centres: Tortola (with the capital, Road Town); Jost Van Dyke; Virgin Gorda; and the very flat Anegada, the only coral atoll with just 300 residents, and many wild cows, donkeys and chickens.
Things are coming back, as residents piece their lives back together. About 75 per cent of the charter fleet has returned to service — some charter companies repositioned their yachts prior to the storm, while other damaged yachts have now been replaced.
But only about 30 per cent of hotel rooms have reopened and resumed service, with building supplies in short supply after the hurricanes. Historically, the islands used to export cotton, rum and salt, but exports have all but ceased. Most things are imported.
Yachting is king when it comes to tourism revenues in the BVIs (although offshore banking still brings in about five times more revenue), and destinations that are popular with sailors have seen local businesses there reopen and rebound.
Omar Hurst, the owner of Omar’s Cafe at Soper’s Hole on Tortola, the main island where most people live, serves breakfast to visiting cruisers during the week days and to many locals who visit his eatery during the weekends.
He was one of the lucky restaurateurs who managed to open up just five weeks after the storms, even though the top floor of his establishment that housed all of his food supplies and his prized coffee press, was swamped by rain water after the roof vanished.
“I brought in a generator. I trucked my water in. It wasn’t easy, really,” he says. He had made the move to expand his business and bought a building a few doors down — just before the storms came calling. His new building was damaged as well but will open up.
He says there were three little buildings in front of his restaurant prior to the hurricanes which no longer exist. These buildings just flew away, carried by the strong winds.
Ironically, now Hurst has waterfront property, and his restaurant can be seen from a nearby anchorage that is popular with sailors because it’s across the bay from the customs check-in building and a few doors down from Pusser’s Landing West End pub.
Pusser’s Landing is home to rum drinks like the BVI’s iconic cocktail called the Pain Killer. Pusser’s has its second-floor open but not the ground floor. Its dinghy dock has gone missing, with just cement pillars remaining, poking out of the crystal clear water.
Some other popular restaurants and beachfront watering holes frequented by sailors that were first to open include Foxy’s Beach Bar in Great Harbour on Jost Van Dyke island, and a few strides down the beach, Corsair’s that is run by American transplanted sailor Capt. Vinny Terranova, who now uses a motorboat to get food supplies from the U.S.
A bay away on the same island in scenic White Bay is the Soggy Dollar Bar, home of the Pain Killer rum drink, made from pineapple and orange juice, coconut cream, freshly grated nutmeg and “lots of rum,” says manager Renee Singh.
The bar takes it name from patrons who either swim in from the nearby anchorage or get so-called “dinky bums” or soaking pants from being splashed by waves during the short dinghy ride to shore. They are then forced to pay for their drinks using wet currency.
And the Pain Killer drink takes it’s name from the Loonie Tree, which was plentiful in the area when the beachfront bar was established by a couple in the 1970s, adds Singh. Locals used the short Loonie tree for medicinal purposes, and as a pain suppressant.
Foxy, the iconic proprietor of the beach bar that bears his name, sits near the stump of his palm tree and sings his wisdom to those sailors who gather. He has repaired a porch roof and the dinghy dock and was preparing to host his New Year’s Eve bash, which draws sailors and locals from far and wide. Boaters arrive days ahead, just to get a parking spot.
Foxy doesn’t like to wear shoes and when he was awarded the Order of the British Empire some years ago, he said he went to England and he found the Queen “too old” so he asked to meet her daughter, Princess Anne, who gave him the award. For the ceremony, Foxy was reported to have cut out the soles of his shoes — so, still bare foot.
In late November, there were plans for another party, this one on nearby Necker Island, one of two neighbouring islands owned by British businessman and adventurer Richard Branson. It was invite only, and country singer Kenny Chesney, who owns some property in the area, was supposed to perform at the soiree. Both men have raised money for the relief effort to help in rebuilding the BVIs after the hurricanes.
Sailing has always been important to the local economy, and 50 per cent of overnight visitors to the islands are boaters, says BVI tourism official Keith Dawson. He hunkered down during the storm and his family was okay, but a building collapsed across the road.
“Coming out after the storm I said to my wife “people have died during this storm,” he says. “You couldn’t find a family that wasn’t touched (by the storms) in some way.”
Once the storms left, roads were blocked with fallen palm trees and debris from damaged houses and wrecked cars, forcing people to walk great distances for work or shopping. Power was off or intermittent in some cases for weeks, and there was no running water.
“There were no leaves on the trees. Everything was just black. It was like a bomb exploded,” says BVI tourism official Arvan Hodge. He lives on Tortola and came to Jost Van Dyke after the storm on a barge instead of one of the regular passenger ferries that connects the islands. The passenger ferries were not running for some time afterward.
“I literally fought back tears,” he says of the destruction that greeted him. “There was a ferry on top of the house…I saw Irma and Maria take down trees that I didn’t think could be moved.”
The islanders have seen hurricanes before, although not like Irma and Maria, and started right away to put things right, says Dawson.
There are a couple of main marinas in the island nation, including Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbour with a travel lift that can move larger boats, and that offers haulout services. It’s located close to the popular beach called The Baths, where swimmers can go under and around large boulders. There is a current of about two knots in the area.
Damaged and submerged yachts littered approaches to these marinas after the storms.
“Our first priority was to get these facilities back up and functioning, and to get the charter businesses to kick-start the economy” says Dawson.
“We had to dredge and to move these damaged and derelict boats. It was the sailing sector that was the first to respond.” He adds: “We are back and open for business. I think the future looks good…it looks bright.”
Director of BVI tourism Sharon Flax Brutus says things are coming back. She notes that there are no direct flights to the BVIs, leaving visitors to fly into St. Thomas in the nearby U.S. Virgin islands and hop on a ferry, or use regional airlines to land in the BVIs.
“Yes, we are different. We are not for everyone,” she says. “If you want the glitz, that is not us. Here, we are down to earth. We are a little more laid back. Tourism is the main industry. We have 60 different islands. You pick your passions.”
The islands recently celebrated the milestone of welcoming over a million visitors, she says. “That’s a lot for our small islands. For me, it’s quality over quantity.
“We are seeing more Canadian guests without doing a lot” but will be targeting Canadians in its tourism marketing plans for 2019, she says.
Flax Brutus says they have to protect their country’s natural beauty and environment from overuse by visitors. There are various national parks and a marine park that features a shipwreck for diving. Flamingos are returning to the island of Anegada, and conservation programs there are helping to increase populations of the endangered Anegada Rock Iguana.
On Anegada, BVI tourism official Tausha Vanterpool, who is based in California, was back home for a lobster festival that is part of the BVIs annual Food Fete that celebrates local cuisine found on the different islands.
She said on Cow Wreck beach, a cargo ship many years ago was loaded with bovines and hit a reef that hugs around the island. Some of the cows made it to shore and began roaming around the island.
Her grandmother had 28 children and she is related to many of those on Anegada. Her grandmother’s house is located on the tallest hill on the island, which is found at the lofty height of 28 ft. above sea level.”I always said we are going up the hill to grandmother’s house,” she says with a laugh. Throughout the islands, turtles pop their heads out of the water on occasion, to have a look around, and lay eggs on nearby beaches. Nests made by green and leatherback turtles are protected. Stingrays can be seen often in the water, and conch is plentiful.
In fact, conch is so plentiful there is a man-made “conch island” that consists entirely of discarded shells. Local fishermen say that they prefer to clean their conch in one area, and discard the shells on top of this growing pile because if they were to simply throw the shells overboard, other nearby living conch can sense their dead brethren and take off.
On the land, roosters and hens wander everywhere and can be seen at a regional airport on Beef Island and throughout many of the other islands. Some brave chickens even wander through seating areas of restaurants, looking for morsels of dropped food.
As time marches on, some islanders can now look back at the two hurricanes and poke fun at them. Foxy, proudly wearing his Donald Trump hat with the slogan Make America Great Again, strums his guitar and sings to a gathered crowd of sailors: “A lot of people don’t know that Irma was whore.” Strumming some more, he continues with his serenade: “That hurricane blew away my nuts but it left me with my lips…and Maria blew away all of the nuts that Irma had left.”