Building resilience to hurricanes in the British Virgin Islands

The British Virgin Islands is working towards recovery after being hit by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Reshmi Theckethil coordinates UNDP’s ‘5–10–50’ Partnership Initiative for Risk-Informed Development. The programme targets 50 countries over 10 years, with a focus on five critical areas: risk awareness and early warning; risk-governance; preparedness; resilient recovery; and local and urban risk reduction. Currently, Reshmi is supporting recovery efforts following a devastating hurricane season in the Caribbean. She spoke with us about her experience in the British Virgin Islands.

Can you tell us about the impact of the 2017 hurricanes on the British Virgin Islands?

During the period of 7 August to 6 September 2017, the British Virgin Islands experienced two near back-to-back storms that killed four people and significantly impacted the lives and livelihoods of thousands of residents. These events caused widespread destruction of houses and infrastructure, disrupted basic services and led to the loss of livelihoods and income generating activities.

As coordinator of UNDP’s ‘5–10–50’ Partnership Initiative for Risk-Informed Development, Reshmi Theckethil is currently supporting hurricane recovery in the Caribbean.

Nearly 36 percent of the 6,944 residential structures were destroyed or suffered major damage, with many remaining buildings requiring repairs, especially to their roofs. Almost all the 1,400 boats and yachts (which comprise 50 percent of the territory’s tourist accommodations), were damaged, and up to 40 percent may be written off by insurers. Nineteen percent of the population was displaced. Preliminary estimates place the damages from these events at approximately US$3.6 billion.

How is UNDP responding to the disaster?

UNDP did not have a permanent presence in the BVI. Nevertheless, the sub-regional office in Barbados responded promptly by participating in the Rapid Assessment mission. Afterwards, while the relief efforts were still taking place, I was deployed to assist with the preparations for recovery. What was particularly interesting to me was how the various units within UNDP, from the Crisis Response Unit to the Bureau for Policy and Programme Support and the Regional Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean, worked seamlessly to bring the right expertise to those who needed it.

Two near back-to-back hurricanes killed four people and caused widespread destruction of homes, infrastructure and livelihoods.

What was your role in the response?

In October 2017, I was deployed to support the Premier’s Office and Disaster Recovery Coordinating Committee to help design early recovery interventions for the territory. While the humanitarian response and relief operations were still in progress, I worked with a team of government officials and other key stakeholders to draft a Preliminary Recovery and Development Plan, which is currently being reviewed through territory-wide stakeholder and public consultations. With the remote support of other UNDP colleagues, I also worked with the recovery advisors to the Premier to develop concept notes on the establishment of a Recovery Agency as well as a Resilience Fund.

With more than 70 percent of the housing stock impacted, housing recovery was a critical aspect. I therefore supported the Ministry of Health and Social Development that was responsible for housing to draft the Housing Recovery Policy and the Post-Irma Housing Recovery Plan. In the absence of any coordination mechanism for non-governmental actors in the territory, I often found myself acting as a link between the government and other non-governmental actors, facilitating information exchange.

The 2017 hurricanes damaged telecommunications systems and other key infrastructure.

What are the immediate and longer-term prospects for recovery? What needs to happen?

The post-hurricane recovery is a tremendous opportunity for the BVI to redefine its development trajectory towards a greener, resilient and sustainable future for the territory and its people. A strong institutional set up with significant and sustained financing will be required. However, the prospects for recovery are constrained by BVI’s middle income status, which restricts its access to developmental assistance. Therefore, the recovery efforts need to be complemented with strong advocacy measures to call for relaxation of the criteria that determine access to development assistance and global funds to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Small island countries face some special circumstances. How do we make sure they are better able to withstand disaster in the future?

Small islands such as the BVI are on the frontline of climate change impacts, in addition to other hazards they are exposed to. At the same time, their economies are heavily dependent on tourism and related services that makes it essential to protect the natural environment while promoting economic development. It’s therefore critical that development of the islands is adequately informed by the risks they are exposed to, while enhancing resilience of communities to future disasters.

Almost all the 1,400 boats and yachts in BVI, critical to the tourism industry, were damaged or destroyed.

What this means is that while diversifying its economy and strengthening disaster management capacities of the communities and governance systems, they need to adopt ecosystem-based approaches for environmental management and biodiversity conservation. It also requires measures to strengthen the ability to adapt to climate change through restoration of mangroves and other natural defenses. A risk-informed approach to development is critical for those on the front-lines.

I understand you are returning to BVI. What will you be doing?

I will be providing technical support to the government to finalize and implement the recovery and development plan, with specific attention to the integration of disaster risk reduction into development planning. I will also help establish the institutional arrangements needed to undertake post-hurricane recovery and reconstruction, including the Virgin Islands Recovery and Development Agency and the Resilience Fund. Given BVI’s limited access to traditional donors and development aid, I will assist with the development of strategic partnerships and resource mobilization for recovery.

Residents of BVI are working to rebuild damaged homes and infrastructure.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve encountered in your work?

I think the most surprising discovery was how everyone I met, whether in the government or otherwise, was either a relative, neighbour or a close friend of the next person. Coming from a populous country such as India where one doesn’t even know everyone in the same course of study as you in your school, this was unfathomable.

Is there one memory that stands out from your time there?

After the hurricane, there were very few places where one could buy food. One day, as I was getting my lunch, I heard someone behind me saying, “Hello”. And I turned around and saw the Premier. He extended his hand and said: “Oh, you are the young lady from the UN. So you recommend that I should attend the donor conference in New York?” It’s not very often that I run into heads of states. I ended up walking back with the Premier to his office where I had the opportunity to give a one-minute pitch on why it was important for the BVI to attend the donor conference and share its story. The Premier did end up going to the conference, whether because of my suggestion or not, I am not sure.

Recovery plans have been drafted in consultation with the public.

You must have met many people affected by the storms. Can you share one of their stories?

In the BVI, everyone was affected by the hurricane, from the Premier to ordinary citizens. One of the stories that moved me was that of a senior government official who was responsible for a large portfolio that included health, housing, waste management and social development. She told me how she and her two teenage kids locked themselves in the bathroom when the hurricane winds started pounding on their main door and how she started making jokes and taking selfies with the kids to keep them distracted from what was unfolding.

As she looked through the window she saw her roof being blown away and the dresses from her wardrobe drifting through the winds; she told me how she realized at that moment that life would never be the same. Her house was completed destroyed; her kids had to be sent away to the US and she had to move in with another family. Yet, just a few days later she was at the temporary office like any other day, attending to her official responsibilities from dawn to dusk, leaving just in time before the curfew started, to a house with no running water or electricity. I heard many such stories of not just suffering but of resilience that continue to inspire and motivate me in the face of the challenges we face in the recovery process.

Like other small islands nations, the British Virgin Islands is highly exposed to the impacts of climate change.