By Benito Wheatley, Contributor
The 2019 hurricane season which saw the immense challenge faced by the Bahamas government in mounting an overall response to the destruction of Abaco by Hurricane Dorian has prompted much reflection on my part on the British Virgin Islands (BVI) own external response to Hurricane Irma over two years earlier.
This commentary provides some insight into the aspects of that external response in which I was involved as Director of the BVI London Office during the emergency period between September and October 2017.
Aftermath of Irma
Following the passage of Hurricane Irma on 6th September 2017, the islands had suffered catastrophic damage and most communications were offline. I successfully contacted then Premier Dr the Honourable D Orlando Smith, OBE, who immediately instructed me to request urgent assistance from the United Kingdom (UK) and international partners.
On the same evening, I received a call from Sir Alan Duncan, Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), who reassured me of the UK Government’s support for the BVI.
In the days and weeks that followed, the UK Government’s Crisis Centre and BVI London Office worked closely together as the UK Government ramped up its emergency response to meet the scale of the disaster. With news reaching the rest of the world of the devastation in the BVI, the BVI London Office quickly became the BVI Government’s global hub, fielding numerous queries and requests from the general public, media, business, governments, civic organisations and persons concerned about their loved ones.
The office also became a vital communication link for Virgin Gorda whose communication with Tortola had been completely cut off.
In response to the crisis, the BVI Government’s external offices (i.e. BVI London Office, BVI House Asia, BVI Financial Services Commission (Hong Kong), BVI Tourist Board (New York & London)) and a number of government officials operating outside of the BVI came together to coordinate an external response on behalf of the BVI Government.
The members of the group included myself, Dr Sandra Besson, Tracy Bradshaw, Elise Donovan, Pearla George, Jaslyn Frett-Thompson, Ginny Hawksley, Myrvina Jeria, Kenneth Baker, Dawn Smith, Leon Wheatley, Arliene Penn and Joseph Abbot Smith.
Led by the BVI London Office, the committee worked to, among other things, ensure that the outside world was kept abreast of new developments as they unfolded on the ground, stakeholders in the financial services and tourism industry were engaged, fundraising efforts were coordinated, offers of humanitarian aid/supplies were addressed, BVI students in the UK contacted and those students in the United States (US) in the path of Irma accounted for and prepared for the arrival of the storm.
As weather reports confirmed that Hurricane Jose was on course for the BVI, which raised widespread concern for the lives of the people on the islands who remained highly vulnerable after Irma, the BVI London Office intensified media engagement.
Hurricane Jose was subsequently followed by the formation and passage of Hurricane Maria which eventually affected the BVI. I made several international media appearances and also conducted interviews on radio stations in the Caribbean to update on the situation and to warn that new storms were approaching.
At the diplomatic level, I held an initial meeting with the then UK Foreign Secretary Right Honourable Boris Johnson and later joined him in New York to participate in a high-level meeting at United Nations (UN) Headquarters which he chaired.
He was joined by then Foreign Minister of France Jean-Yves Le Drian, Foreign Minister of the Netherlands Bert Koenders, UK International Development Secretary Priti Patel, UK Overseas Territories Minister Lord Ahmad, European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid Christos Stylianides, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock and representatives of other affected islands in the Caribbean.
I made representation to the attendees on behalf of the BVI Government. I later returned to London and held more meetings with the political establishment to build up political support for the BVI. These included meetings and exchanges with the UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, International Development Secretary Priti Patel, Brexit Secretary David Davis, Transportation Secretary Chris Grayling, Labour Party Shadow Secretary Emily Thornberry and Leader of the Liberal Democrats Sir Vince Cable, among others. I also attended a special meeting at the Commonwealth Secretariat on rebuilding the Caribbean islands affected by Hurricanes Maria and Irma, where I updated the grouping of diplomats, government officials, parliamentarians, businesses and civic organisations on the situation on the ground.
I later held a bilateral meeting with the Chief Minister of Gibraltar Honourable Fabian Picardo and Premier of the Cayman Islands Honourable Alden McGloughlin, as well as helpful exchanges with Counsellors from the Falkland Islands.
The United Kingdom Overseas Territories Association (UKOTA) also supported the BVI’s efforts through collective engagement with UK Parliamentarians. Former BVI Governors Boyd McCleary and Frank Savage were particularly helpful in lobbying efforts.
The BVI London Office also maintained contact with CARICOM at Secretary-General level and participated in teleconferences of emergency meetings of CARICOM Political Leaders. These efforts were followed by engagement in Brussels to request humanitarian assistance from the European Commission.
To support the humanitarian relief effort, a Hurricane Relief Group was formed in London, chaired by the BVI London Office. The group brought together the BVI Diaspora and the Territory’s international partners, friends and supporters to coordinate plans and activities.
These efforts culminated in a fundraising event at the Rooftop Gardens organised by the BVI London Office and BVI Tourist Board UK Office in partnership with Barclays Bank and Virgin Limited.
In both the United States and the UK, the BVI Diaspora organised clothing and supplies drives and other events to support the people of the islands. Townhall meetings were also held in New York, Atlanta and London which I had the opportunity to address.
Job well done
Much credit is due to my former colleagues at BVI House who included Dr Sandra Besson, Tracy Bradshaw, Siobhan Flax, Nicholas Jeria, Aliston Simmons, Ola Tunde Lana, Ginny Hawksley, Myrvina Jeria, Kyle Harrigan and Emily Shand who worked tirelessly while the BVI London Office carried the disproportionate burden of the BVI government’s external response in the emergency period after Irma struck.
The UK government also showed the best of their political relationship with the BVI in the cooperation between the BVI London Office and UK Government Crisis Centre led by Ben Merrick, Director of the Overseas Territories Directorate as the operations Gold Leader.
The hurricanes of September 2017 were the BVI’s darkest hour and the people of the islands can be proud of the BVI Government’s external response to Hurricane Irma which helped the islands get through its worst natural disaster in memory.
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