Effects of Hurricane Irma in the British Virgin Islands
|Category 5 major hurricane (SSHWS/NWS)|
|Duration||September 5–7, 2017|
|Winds||1-minute sustained: 180 mph (285 km/h) |
|Pressure||915 mbar (hPa); 27.02 inHg|
|Damage||$3.47 billion (2017 USD)|
|Areas affected||British Virgin Islands|
|Part of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season|
The effects of Hurricane Irma in the British Virgin Islands were significant in terms of both human and socio-economic impact on the Territory. Hurricane Irma struck the British Virgin Islands as a Category 5 hurricane during the daylight hours of Wednesday, 6 September 2017. It caused widespread destruction, and killed a total of four people. The eye of the hurricane traveled over the three major islands in the group: Virgin Gorda, Tortola and Jost Van Dyke.
The hurricane caused extensive damage to property and infrastructure in the Territory, and caused statistically significant levels of depopulation.
The Governor, Gus Jaspert, who had only been sworn in a few days previously, declared a state of emergency under the Territory's constitution, the first time this had ever happened. As radio facilities had been significantly damaged and were inoperable, the state of emergency had to be announced by distribution of flyers around the capital, Road Town.
|"Irma has me sick to my stomach ... This hurricane is as serious as any I have seen. No hype, just the hard facts. Take every lifesaving precaution you can. ... I have little doubt Irma will go down as one of the most infamous in Atlantic hurricane history."|
|-- Eric Blake, Hurricane Specialist, National Hurricane Center.|
From a relatively early stage of its development, Hurricane Irma was predicted to travel close to, or over, the British Virgin Islands. However the late stage intensification of the storm was less well anticipated. As little as two days before the storm struck, the BVI Department of Disaster Management were predicting maximum expected wind speed of 110 mph (177 km/h) - on the boundary between a Category 2 and Category 3 hurricane. Over the course of 5 September 2017 Hurricane Irma rapidly intensified until it had strengthened well beyond sustained wind speeds required for classification as a Category 5 hurricane, into the strongest hurricane ever recorded over the open Atlantic Ocean (excluding the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea).
On 5 September 2017 the hurricane's track was predicted to take it directly over the northernmost island in the Territory, Anegada. During the last 24 hours before the storm struck its tracked moved slightly southward so that the centre of the hurricane travelled directly through the middle of the islands.
The Government recommended a full evacuation of Anegada, as the highest elevation on that island is just 25 feet - lower than the predicted storm surge - and the hurricane was expected to pass directly over it. Government provided an evacuation ferry, although not all residents did leave. Ironically, because of the storm's late southward turn, Anegada was spared the worst of the weather.
6 September 2017
At approximately 4.30am local time public electricity was switched off. Standard operating procedure for the British Virgin Islands Electricity Corporate is to shut off power once the majority of the Territory is experiencing tropical storm force winds. By approximately 9.30am the majority of the country was experiencing hurricane force winds. By the time the storm hit the British Virgin Islands, it had intensified to such a level as to be detected on seismometers calibrated for earthquakes. The eye of the hurricane traversed the Territory between around 1.00 and 2.30pm. By the early evening wind speeds had fallen once again to sub-hurricane speeds, although tropical storm force winds continued until the small hours of the following morning.
A series of public alert messages sent in SMS form by the Department of Disaster of Management throughout the day, and were recorded in The Irma Diaries, a book recording experiences of survivors from the storm and its aftermath. At 5.39am a message was sent:
|“||At 5:00 AM, the National Hurricane Centre has indicated that Hurricane Irma's maximum sustained winds remain near 185 miles per hour (mph) with higher gusts. Irma is the most powerful Atlantic hurricane in recorded history and will be the strongest system to ever make landfall in the Caribbean.
... Based on the latest forecasts, the approximate closest point of approach to Road Town from Hurricane Irma is 17 miles northeast.
The last message from the DDM which was sent before total communications failure was sent at 11.34am read:
|“||We are in for a direct hit, a direct hit on Road Town! Move, move to safe room immediately! Move please to safe room immediately! Immediately! Move please.||”|
No further communications were sent. It would later transpire that the offices of the Department of Disaster Management were almost entirely destroyed during the storm.
In the aftermath of the storm a large proportion of the Territory's roads were impassable. Communities were essentially cut-off from each other and the wider world. Telecommunications was rendered virtually non-existent by the destruction of the cellular telephone network and the almost total loss of telephone poles for landlines.
Four people died in the Territory as a result of the hurricane. They were named as Charles Thomas, Derek Ragnauth, Xavier ‘Dag’ Samuels and Richard Alan Benson.
Dag Samuels was a well known athletics coach in the Territory. His protégé, Kyron McMaster, would go on to win gold in the 400m hurdles in the 2018 Commonwealth Games the following year, and would dedicate his victory to his deceased coach.
The Territory also experienced an abnormally high number of deaths in the months of September to December 2017, after the passage of the hurricane.
The most significant damage was on Tortola. The UK's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson visited Tortola on 13 September 2017 and said that he was reminded of photos of Hiroshima after it had been hit by the atom bomb. Approximately 85% of housing stock - over 4,000 homes - were damaged or destroyed. Numerous contemporaneous reports referred to the "browning" of the island, and the bark being stripped from trees.
Availability of food, potable water, fuel and medicine were highly limited. Residents had to queue, sometimes for hours, in the sun to obtain necessities. None of the banks functioned for several days afterwards, and the Territory became a purely cash economy for a period of weeks.
Only 279 people were recorded as being provided emergency accommodation by the Government in the immediate aftermath. Although some unofficial estimates were higher, it was still a relatively small fraction of the overall population. Many of the surviving private dwellings were used to accommodate multiple families, which may have assisted the pressure on providing emergency accommodation.
Balsam Ghut prison
Following the hurricane there was extensive damage to the prison, 90% of the buildings were damaged, most had lost their roofs and the perimeter fence was breached at several points. Prisoners eventually forced their way out, some returning that day. Although exact numbers were never provided, the authorities indicated that a number of the prisoners surrendered themselves voluntarily after checking on their families. All except two of the remaining prisoners were subsequently recaptured over the following days. Joint operations by both UK and local police assisted by the Royal Marines secured the prison and returned the vast majority of prisoners within seven days.
Department of Disaster Management
The building which housed the Department of Disaster Management was almost totally destroyed in the storm. Accordingly, the relief and recovery efforts had to be coordinated from a conference room in Peebles Hospital.
In the days after the hurricane there were reports of looting of local businesses. This included not just food and medical supplies, but also non-essential consumer goods. The looting was brought under control when British troops arrived as part of the relief supplies.
Subsequent weather events
Four days after Hurricane Irma passed, Hurricane Jose, a Category 4 hurricane, narrowly missed the islands.
Eight days after Hurricane Irma passed, the Territory experienced torrential downpours of rain. Because the hills had been stripped of vegetation by the hurricane, this resulted almost immediately in extensive flooding of low lying areas, including the capital, Road Town.
Fourteen days after Hurricane Irma, the Territory was struck again by Hurricane Maria, also a Category 5 hurricane. However the eye of the storm passed to the south of Saint Croix, and the damage was minimal compared to Hurricane Irma.
By 8 September 2017, the UK government sent troops with medical supplies and other aid. The arrival of HMS Ocean, carrying more extensive assistance, was delayed and did not arrive for approximately two weeks.
After the hurricane passed, entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, a resident of Necker Island, called on the UK government to develop a massive disaster recovery plan for British islands that were damaged, including "both through short-term aid and long-term infrastructure spending." Premier Orlando Smith also called for a comprehensive aid package to rebuild the BVI. On 10 September, British Prime Minister Theresa May pledged £32 million to the Caribbean region generally for a Hurricane relief fund.
Aid distribution centres were set up in Cane Garden Bay, East End and Hunthum's Ghut.
It took several days before Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport reopened for non-military traffic after the passage of the hurricane. Although it was only lightly damaged, communications equipment was destroyed, and the runway needed to be inspected and secured before allowing flight operations. In the seven days after it was reopened, a total of 1,597 (or approximately 5% of the population) was evacuated by airlift. The number of persons who evacuated by helicopter from private sites or by boat is not recorded.
Almost immediately after the passage of the hurricane a state of emergency was declared and the Governor imposed a curfew. After one month, rather than extend the state of emergency, the Government passed the Curfew Act, giving the elected Government power to impose a curfew, which they did immediately. That civilian curfew then ended after a period of three months (after being gradually relaxed by degrees) and so the Territory operated under curfew for a period of three-months.
There are no reliable records of a curfew having been imposed in the Territory in modern times, and there was no legal basis upon which one could have been imposed (absent either legislation or a state of emergency). Therefore this was likely the first curfew imposed in the British Virgin Islands since at least the colonial era.
The estimated damage to property in the British Virgin Islands was initially calculated to be US$3.6 billion. Although there were widespread reports of economic distress and redundancies in the aftermath of the hurricane, no reliable statistics or projections have been published. In the Territory's 2018 annual budget address, the Minister of Finance reported a 46% decline in tourist arrivals, and projected a 9.3% decline in Government revenues, and a contraction of 2.6% in GDP.
In May 2018 the Immigration Department of the British Virgin Islands announced that the population of the Territory has dropped by approximately 11% since Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the previous year.
Recovery and rebuilding efforts in the Territory were hampered by low levels of insurance coverage. The Government itself had a policy of "self-insurance", and other than the Central Administration Complex, virtually none of its buildings or vehicles were insured.
Private homeowners also have relatively low levels of hurricane insurance. In previous natural disasters the Government has provided emergency assistance to residents, providing funding for repairs to homes that are uninsured. This created a moral hazard in that only uninsured homes were eligible for Government assistance, and incentivised lower income property owners to be underinsured or completely uninsured.
To assist insured homeowners, the Government formed a temporary dedicated Insurance Tribunal to hear and determine insurance claims.
- "British Virgin Islands financial centre hit hard by Irma". Financial Times. 10 September 2017.
- "British Virgin Islands tourism showing signs of recovery after Hurricane Irma". The Guardian. 30 January 2018.
It sounds like an exaggeration but when Hurricane Irma knocked out the British Virgin Islands (BVI) on 6 September 2017 the winds did reach 215mph – faster still inside the tornadoes spinning on the edge of the storm’s eye. Irma was the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever to strike land and it ran an almost straight course through the whole island chain. Aside from one, outlying Anegada, all the islands were hit with Irma’s worst: trees weren’t just stripped of leaves but their bark, too. Irma left 85% of buildings destroyed or severely damaged and infrastructure on the main island, Tortola, was smashed.
- Eliza Mackintosh and Donie O'Sullivan (12 September 2017). "Don't forget about us: Irma's desperate Caribbean survivors". CNN.
- "BVI's population drops by 4,000". BVI News. 25 May 2018.
- "Governor declares State of Emergency; says fatalities reported". BVI News. Retrieved 28 September 2017.
- Virgin Islands Constitution Order 2007, article 27.
- "Hurricane Irma Rumor FAQ". Snopes. 9 September 2017.
- "Twitter: @ericblake12". Twitter.com. Retrieved 9 June 2018.
- "HURRICANE WARNING ISSUED FOR THE BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS". BVI Department of Disaster Management. 4 September 2017.
- Angela Burnett (2017). "1". The Irma Diaries (PDF). Amazon Digital Services LLC. ASIN B0781C47PT.
- "First 24 hours of destruction as Hurricane Irma tears through Atlantic". The Daily Telegraph. 7 September 2017.
- "Hurricane Irm's path of destruction retraced". NBC News. 14 September 2017.
- "Hurricane Irma has become so strong it's showing up on seismometers used to measure earthquakes". The Independent. 5 September 2017.
- Angela Burnett (2017). The Irma Diaries. Amazon Digital Services LLC. ASIN B0781C47PT.
- "DDM pleads for approximately $200K". Virgin Islands News Online. 23 May 2018.
- "Hurricane Irma Situation Report - 001" (PDF). BVI Department of Disaster Management. 9 September 2017.
- "All 4 casualties of Hurricane Irma now identified". BVI News. 9 October 2017.
- "Kyron McMaster wins the British Virgins Islands' first ever medal in perfect tribute to late coach". Herald Sun. 12 April 2018.
- "VI records abnormally high death rate last year". Virgin Islands News Online. 8 June 2018.
- Kathryn Hansen (September 11, 2017). "Hurricane Irma Turns Caribbean Islands Brown". NASA Earth Observatory. Retrieved September 12, 2017.
- "Paradise lost: Tortola seeks UK aid after Irma". Sky News. 14 September 2017.
- "Boris Johnson reminded of Hiroshima on visit to Irma-hit Tortola". Sky News. 14 September 2017.
- "4,240 houses reported damaged or destroyed in BVI". BVI News. 3 October 2017.
- Colin Riegels (17 September 2017). "Life lessons from Hurricane Irma". LinkedIn Pulse.
- "Full electricity restoration could take 6 months". BVI News. 12 September 2017.
- "98% of electricity now restored in BVI". BVI News. 21 February 2018.
- Angela Burnett (2017). "Preface". The Irma Diaries. Amazon Digital Services LLC. ASIN B0781C47PT.
- "Hurricane Irma Situation Report - 002" (PDF). BVI Department of Disaster Management. 16 September 2017.
- "UK sends 14 Prison Officers to Her Majesty's Prison @ Balsam Ghut!". Virgin Islands News Online. 9 March 2018.
- "Eight arrested as BVI Police enforce zero tolerance looting policy". Virgin Islands Daily News. 22 September 2017.
- "Hurricane Irma: UK troops and police called in to halt looting on British Virgin Islands". Daily Express. 10 September 2017.
- "British Virgin Islands to face 155mph winds with Hurricane Maria". The Guardian. 20 September 2017.
- "Caribbean in chaos as Irma brings floods to Florida Keys – as it happened". The Guardian. 12 September 2017.
- Farmer, Ben; Swinford, Steven (8 September 2017). "British response to Hurricane Irma 'found wanting', senior MPs say, as Royal Navy arrives in Caribbean" – via www.telegraph.co.uk.
- "Caribbean in chaos as Irma brings floods to Florida Keys – as it happened". The Guardian. 12 September 2017.
- Hilary Clarke and Samantha Beech (12 September 2017). "European leaders step up Irma relief effort in Caribbean". CNN.
- "State of Emergency ends midnight, curfew to continue". Virgin Islands News Online. 5 October 2017.
- "Regional Overview:Impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria" (PDF). 2 November 2017.
- "Economy 'bust'? Layoffs continue following Hurricane Irma". Virgin Islands News Online. 4 October 2017.
- "2018 Budget Address". Government of the Virgin Islands. Retrieved 7 June 2018.
- "Nagico pays $11 million to government for CAB". BVI Beacon. 27 April 2018.
No other central-government buildings were insured, and only “elements of” certain statutory bodies, including the BVI Electricity Corporation, the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College, and the BVI Ports Authority, also had insurance, according Brodrick Penn, the chairman of the Disaster Recovery Coordination Committee. ... Government cars aren’t likely to add much to that total: At a House of Assembly sitting in November, Dr. Smith noted that most public sector vehicles were “self-insured” by central government
- "Virgin Gorda Gov't Complex was not insured—Premier Smith". Virgin Islands News Online. 10 August 2018.
- "Millions Lost On ESHS Expansion; Buildings Were Not Insured". BVI Platinum. 17 September 2018.
According to Hon. Walwyn, “The government was not compensated for any money paid out on this project because these buildings, like most government assets, were not insured.”
- "Housing Recovery Assistance Programme". Government of the Virgin Islands. Retrieved 7 June 2018.
To be eligible to obtain housing assistance, applicants must be uninsured or underinsured owners of residential property
- "Gov't implements Insurance Tribunal for aggrieved residents". BVI News. 15 January 2018.