This was written on 28 September 2017 in the aftermath of Irma.
I count myself among the lucky. My story pales in comparison to the several I have heard from my wider network of families and friends. The text messages and emails from concerned connections abroad are still coming faster than I can reply to them. The storm left no soul unaffected. The trees are a testament to that. They have become macabre monuments – twisted embodiments of our trauma. But the hills are beginning to sprout some green. The trees will come back with vibrancy. So shall we.
The days after Irma have been spent sifting through the wreckage picking up the pieces of our lives, trying to return to some sense of normalcy amidst darkness and the droning of newly purchased generators. It has been three weeks of listening for familiar voices through the static of our radios, scrolling through social media timelines searching for some semblance of the mundane, the boring, anything that makes feel like things can be just the way they were before the storms. While this sort of sentiment may be what many of us need during this period, the fact is that things can never return to what they were – in fact, the worst possible outcome for us will be if they do.
The first of three adversities befell the Virgin Islands in the form of the August Monday Floods. The economic impact of that event was already estimated in the millions, and many businesses were still in recovery when Hurricane Irma appeared on our collective radar. Despite being immediately followed by the similarly powerful Maria, Irma was by some distance the most destructive hurricane ever to make landfall in these islands. There are no figures yet, but a figure in the billions is expected. Most of us were still in shock, still without communications, still without confirmation of the well-being of friends and loved ones when Maria arrived almost exactly two weeks later, howling and beating at our doors.
There have been some informal attempts to place Irma within the appropriate historical context, and I rely on the knowledge base of Dr. Katherine Smith, one of the scholars at the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College’s nascent Virgin Islands Studies Institute. Recently, Dr. Smith drew a comparison between Irma’s unmitigated destruction and the 1819 hurricane which largely dismantled the sugar industry of the BVI. That storm left only a handful of structures standing and claimed over 100 lives. We are grateful that the seemingly wanton and ubiquitous destruction was not followed by an identical loss of life. Regardless, the most important lesson we must learn once we shake the collective haze from our eyes is that nothing must return to what it was. Now is a watershed moment in BVIslander history. Now is when the work must begin. Do we have the bravery required to do what needs to be done now that we have lost so much? The dreamers amongst us can imagine a territory that is no longer beholden to fossil fuels and the countries that produce them to power our homes and businesses – meaning no fuel shortages or spikes in price can affect us. We can imagine a strategically planned network of underground utilities including electricity, water, and telecommunications that ensures that we can return those services to most quicker after a disaster of this scale. We can imagine this moment as an opportunity to consider what parts of our capital, in particular, and other major villages can be transformed into pedestrian zones and green spaces. We can imagine what sort of place we really want to leave for our children. More importantly than that, now is our chance to build it.