My fellow Virgin Islanders,
Certain events in our lives are so momentous that we will always remember where we were and what we did when those events occurred. Many of us will surely remember where we were and what we were doing on the early hours of 6thSeptember, 2017 when Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Virgin Islands.
Irma was one of the worst natural disasters in the Atlantic and no one who saw the devastation – the loss of life and the effect on survivors – could avoid being touched by the situation.
However, the one year anniversary of Irma’s passing brings with it a time for reflection and renewal.
I am reminded by our historians that the Virgin Islands were once before at a similar place where we find ourselves today, almost 200 years ago following the passage of the great hurricane of 1819.
Faced with the decision to seek new lands or to be overtaken by the rubble that remained; our ancestors knowingly or not, chose to pave the way for you, and for me. They chose to look deep within themselves and began to lay the foundation for the Virgin Islands and who we were to become – independent, tenacious, hardworking, and yes, resilient. With that ancestry, we have been able to achieve great things – together.
I would like to pay tribute to all those men and women, who went out from the early hours post-hurricane, and for several days, to help in the search and rescue efforts – digging through the debris and clearing the roads in the hope of finding and assisting survivors.
I pay tribute to all those who helped care for the survivors by bringing food, providing shelter and other critical supplies to meet basic needs, and indeed those who helped provide for the ones, who lost their homes and other prized possessions.
I commend the entire Department of Disaster Management team for taking swift action – through the National Emergency Operations Centre – to bring all critical sectors together to respond rapidly to a complex crisis.
A catalyst for change, the disaster of September 2017 raised awareness about preparedness, as well as the critical need for longer-term environmental protection.
Our plans recognise that climate change is real and our environment is vulnerable. We must therefore accelerate our mitigation and adaptation interventions to ensure our natural resources are used sustainably and are available for future generations.
Making our communities more resilient is going to be increasingly important, because we expect to see more extreme weather events as deeper droughts and stronger storms may very well become a norm from now on.
But the thing is – we, the people of the Virgin Islands, have something in us that is just irrepressible. We have a way of making a way out of no way –we know the sun comes out after every storm and we have hope.
We have the hope and vision for a stronger, smarter, greener and better BVI that is economically vibrant, socially cohesive, environmentally sustainable, structurally resilient and adhering to the principles of good governance and the rule of law.
Since the hurricane, my Government and the people of this Territory, including public and private sector agencies, generously supported by local and international friends, supporters, agencies and partners have worked steadfastly to restore the quality of life we have worked so hard for over the past decades to create.
Infrastructure and Utilities
We have already begun to make significant strides with rebuilding our infrastructure and utilities. However, much more is planned. We recognise that rebuilding our infrastructure and utilities is critical to catalyzing all other aspects of the rebuild, whether it is our livelihoods or our businesses and business sectors.
Immediately following the passage of Hurricane Irma in September 2017, with the assistance of divers and specialty contractors, surveys were completed on all the Territory’s port facilities.
The Road Town Jetty, which was deemed unusable for international travel upon inspection, has since resumed its international services. This resumption has been a strong indication of the progress my government has made, as we understand the importance of that facility supporting travel for both residents and tourists.
Our infrastructure plan also calls for a rebuild of approximately 90 miles of road network as well as drains, ghuts, walls and sea defenses. We have started to survey and design roads and revetments for some of the areas that were significantly damaged, for example Cappoon’s Bay to Cane Garden Bay road and revetment.
Restoration of our sewerage network and treatment plants; as well as repair and reinstatement of water plants, distribution networks (including metering) and all reservoirs are also high priorities. There is also focus on repairing the electrical power distribution and transmission network throughout the Territory, as well as improving its resilience by placing cables underground and developing alternative energy sources.
Our plans also recognise the critical importance of extending the runway at the Terrence B. Lettsome International Airport in supporting a rapid economic recovery and positioning the Territory to respond more effectively and efficiently following future disasters, should they occur.
The task of reconstruction in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma is enormous and the road to full recovery requires a strong institutional structure with significant and sustained financing to drive the economic and social recovery needs and future growth of the Territory.
Business, Finance and Economy
Though the 2017 hurricanes underscored the fragility of our tourism sector, we have reacted swiftly and decisively, and were able to begin welcoming guests back to our shores as early as November 1, 2017.
Our charter yacht and sailing industry was the first sector to rebound, with some operators accepting guests in early November 2017 to jumpstart the winter season. Our sailing sector is projected to be at or near full recovery, by the first quarter of 2019.
Our cruise tourism sector, which provided our greatest quantity of annual guests, resumed calls at Tortola Pier Park in December 2017, bringing in thousands more visitors. Disney Cruise Lines made its return just days ago with enthusiastic visitors who expressed congratulations on the progress we have made in our recovery post Irma. Following on this trend, we are expecting a robust 2018/2019 cruise season, with Norwegian Cruise Line expected to berth in late October 2018.
Signature properties as well as many of our smaller ‘Jewel’ properties, cottages and villas, are open and have been welcoming and accommodating our guests. We are excited to announce the re-opening of Necker Island on October 1, 2018 and also that the island resort will once again play host to the Necker Cup tennis tournament, which returns after being held in the Bahamas in 2017.
Our many other larger properties, such as Rosewood Little Dix Bay, Bitter End Yacht Club, Peter Island Resort, Biras Creek, etc. have all continued to demonstrate a commitment to the BVI, and are slated for a late 2019 reopening.
Understanding the development of our Tourism product, services and attractions, including timelines for re-openings, we have committed over $2 million, in the short term, to develop our tourism infrastructure, as well as towards tourism projects that will enhance our guest attractions and experience.
Since the Hurricanes, key milestones related to the international business and finance centre have been reached. The BVI Commercial Court, which moved to St. Lucia after the hurricanes, relocated back to the BVI in January. With the support and contribution of the industry ($225,000), the permanent building is in its final stages of restoration.
My government saw to the passage of several key pieces of legislations, such as the new Limited Partnership Act that contains key innovations that will continue to boost our funds industry.
We also saw the successful launch of Bank of Asia (BVI) Limited, the first bank to be licensed in the BVI in over 20 years. The bank is one of the world’s first fully digital, global banks set to serve cross-border business. In this FinTech era, this is a great step in the right direction for the BVI and it continues to show our resilience and inclination to grow and adapt, despite the challenges we faced in 2017.
Human and Social Services
At the core of our recovery plans, is the rebuilding of the lives of the people of the Virgin Islands.
We are rebuilding our education infrastructure incorporating smart technologies; revamping our building standards to be more resilient, expediting construction of our clinics, expanding our secondary and specialist healthcare services, and developing a policing response in the Territory to provide security, reassurance and law and order.
We have partnered with a number of organisations to support the social sectors, including PAHO, Convoy of Hope, UNICEF, Rubicon, ADRA and Unite BVI to name a few. They have helped in a number of areas including relief, food aid, shelters, medical support, building assessments, vector control, housing repair, medical infrastructure repair.
Immediately following the storms, my Government provided Housing Recovery Assistance under the Housing Recovery Assistance Programme to address the needs of persons requiring housing support.
A total of nine schools were reopened while six schools were deemed unusable due to major destruction. Since then, repairs have been carried out with the help of a number of donors who have assisted in rebuilding schools which were either totally destroyed or had significant damages.
We have worked hard to ensure that the BVI is safe. We have developed a policing response in the Territory to provide security, reassurance and law and order, and this has been enabled through the support of the United Kingdom (UK), plus the Bermudan and Cayman Islands Governments, assisting the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force.
We continue to have discussions with the UK Government on ongoing assistance for the future, which will include the provision of specialist skills absent from the force at present, particularly training support and provision of equipment to ensure that the force doesn’t become what it was, but becomes a force that is built to what is needed for the Territory in the future as it grows.
In closing, I wish to take this time to thank everyone for their contribution to our recovery thus far – whether financially, in kind or helping hands. We are very grateful for all you have done and continue to do.
2018/2019 and beyond, holds much promise for our British Virgin Islands and our people. As we reflect on lessons learned, we must always remain steadfast in our resolve to again becoming a premier destination, reestablishing that beautiful BVI we sing about in our Territorial song, a country with a strong economy that is the envy of many, with happy and productive citizens, expectant and ambitious young people – all confident that our best days are still ahead.