Confidence returning to BVI
Welcome to the Virgin Islands, welcome home,” said immigration officer Brodie, as I arrived at the Terrance Lettsome Airport, on Beef Island in the British Virgin Islands.
As with Bermuda, in most “small island” communities, everyone knows each other or is somehow related to each other in one way or the other.
No different in Tortola, with a population of approximately 30,000, of which the native population numbers roughly only 10,000.
Indeed, I was home in the land of my mother’s birth. I wondered what exactly home would look like, approximately two years since the devastation of Category 5-plus Hurricane Irma, in September of 2017.
For those who may not know, on September 6, 2017, the Virgin Islands suffered a direct hit by Hurricane Irma with sustained winds of over 200mph.
The net result was the unfortunate death of five persons, widespread devastation of 90 per cent of the housing stock, including all public buildings and schools, severely damaged or destroyed.
The entire electricity grid was destroyed and the tourism industry, being the mainstay of the economy, ceased to exist.
Approximately one-third of the population had to be evacuated off of the island within two weeks.
My previous visit in March 2018, six months post Irma, was met with a near post-apocalyptic scene of entire neighbourhoods without roofs, destroyed cars and boats littering almost every road, a public service having to operate out of temporary buildings and general feeling of “what next?”, from many inhabitants still suffering from post-traumatic stress.
As I drove around the main island of Tortola, on this most recent trip, I was pleasantly surprised to see almost every abandoned car had been removed, and 99 per cent of the roofs have been repaired or replaced.
Indeed, that was a major relief to my soul.
Further travels revealed that the tourism industry had begun to bounce back, with a plethora of locally owned rental car agencies, beach facilities, sailboat operations and roadside bars in operation.
In fact, I had rented a new Suzuki Vitara from young Tortolian transport entrepreneur Javorn Fahie, who exclaimed that “you got lucky”, as rental cars are in very high demand.
The true litmus test of this recovery was in speaking with a number of friends and family, whilst enjoying local delicacies such as my Aunt Beverley Fraser’s stewed mutton and coconut tart.
Spending time with relatives, hearing their stories of yesteryear, breathing in mountain air and looking out at an archipelago of neighbouring islands, combined to give a hypnotic effect that is near impossible to describe.
Many listed the following developments over the last six months as sure signs of recovery:
• A total rebuilding of the West End Ferry Station
• The removal of more than 400 abandoned vehicles
• The near restoration of the local Elmore Stoutt Public High School
• Restoration of police barracks in sister island Virgin Gorda.
Venturing to the popular tourist spot, Cane Garden Bay, afforded me the ability to interact with a few visitors, who were staying at the newly completed, seven-storey, locally owned, Quitos Inn.
They spoke highly of how impressed they were of the recovery efforts and the friendliness of all they have interacted with.
As a sister British Overseas Territory, the Virgin Islands has a democratically elected government, of a total of 13 representatives, or, as we say in Bermuda, Members of Parliament.
Broken down further, there are nine district representatives and four all territorial representatives.
The current ruling Virgin Islands Party (VIP) administration has a majority in the House of Assembly, with eight elected members, who have inherited a task that Hercules himself may have shied away from.
As with other similar jurisdictions, they struggle with all-too-familiar issues, such as immigration reform, healthcare cost, waste disposal and forward movement, of the indigenous population.
These challenges, coupled with recovery and rebuilding efforts, have seen Andrew Fahie, the Premier, his cabinet and public servants having to make bold, yet pragmatic, decisions, in order to move the needle in a positive direction.
Along the way, they have taken the mantle of proactive communications and interaction with the public via major pushes, in the areas of daily social media and town hall meetings on a monthly basis.
As a prime example, their recent immigration policies have been formed out of the overtly candid feedback, from those town hall meetings.
What stands out to many in the Caribbean region, is that the present administration strongly believes in regional integration, whether it be with Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), with the Caribbean Community (Caricom) or with fellow Overseas Territories (OTs).
Kye Rhymer, the transportation minister, recently visited Bermuda to have a comprehensive look at our public transportation system. This is an example of how small jurisdictions can and must assist each other, versus paying expensive non-regional consultants.
Somewhat reluctantly, after a few days, I had to bid farewell to those mountainous islands.
As the ferry travelled slowly from Tortola to St Thomas, the rebuilding efforts were able to be seen from a waterside perspective.
Clearly, while much work has to be done with regard to social and economic equality, climate resilience and hotel development, one can feel that two years post apocalypse, both internal and external confidence, have returned to the Virgin Islands.
As the hashtag goes, #BVISTRONG.
• Christopher Famous is the government MP for Devonshire East (Constituency 11). You can reach him at WhatsApp on 599-0901 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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