British Virgin Islands face threats from rats, raw sewage and reported looting as many wait to evacuate to Puerto Rico
September 11, 2017 — Small Caribbean islands smashed by Hurricane Irma are in a state of chaos and rising panic, with unknown numbers of dead and injured and many still missing or stranded almost a week after the storm ripped through the region.
Wide areas of the British Virgin Islands have been reduced to rubble, with rats swarming through damaged houses and raw sewage creating a health hazard, as many await evacuation to the larger island of Puerto Rico, to the west, which was less badly hit.
Thousands of islanders are sharing sparse resources and trying to help stranded neighbors, but there have also been reports of looting and armed hold-ups amid the destruction.
“It’s absolutely horrific,” said Sarah Thompson, a 38-year-old lawyer and resident of Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands (BVI). “The island is not fit to live on. Planes and boats are needed to get people off. There was some limited evacuation yesterday, prioritizing those who are injured and most vulnerable, but many are still trying to find a way off the island,” she added.
Thompson was on a trip to California when the hurricane hit the BVI and neighboring groups of islands with 185mph winds in a record category 5 storm late last Tuesday and into Wednesday.
“There are people who cannot be accounted for. Many roads are totally blocked and people cannot get out of their houses. There has been some unrest, but it’s not clear [how much],” she said.
The islands are British overseas territory and the UK government in London has sent a Royal Navy vessel, troops and experts to the region to assist people in the BVI and other territories such as Turks and Caicos and Anguilla. Dutch and French authorities are sending personnel and aid to their overseas territories, such as Saint Martin. Many other islands, such as Barbuda, have seen most of their settlements and infrastructure obliterated.
Olga Osadchaya, 33, a liquidation lawyer and resident of Tortola – the largest island in the BVI – was evacuated by her employer to San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Saturday. But she said many thousands of islanders were stranded and suffering.
“I was privileged to have the option to leave and there are many who are not able to get out. Time is of the essence because of lack of sanitation and more rain coming, which could cause mud slides,” she said.
As Osadchaya was leaving the BVI she saw the Royal Navy arriving with personnel, vehicles and helicopters, she said, but with many of the islands badly damaged there is still a large task ahead to get the emergency under control, she said.
“Most people are helping each other, sharing supplies where they have them, but I am hearing about people running out of water and there are lots of people missing. Some friends of mine were held up for money by someone with a machete in what is left of their house,” she said.
The small number of banks and some shops on Tortola have reportedly been looted and there is some panic about a breakdown in law and order and the growing risk of the outbreak of diseases, both Thompson and Osadchaya told the Guardian, citing communications with friends and family still on the island.
Osadchaya said she understood that many inmates who had escaped from prison after the storm passed through had been recaptured by Monday, but not all. The BVI authorities have declared a curfew from 6pm to 6am.
In a video message posted to Facebook, the BVI premier, Orlando Smith, said the islanders “have been shaken to our core” by the record storm and he was “heartbroken over the loss of life”.
Five people are understood to have died in the BVI so far, but the known death toll is expected to rise as personnel reach areas isolated by flooding and debris.
Communications were down across much of the BVI from Wednesday and there is now some patchy phone and internet function. The only power is from generators, with people running low on fuel to run them, Thompson said.
She did not hear from her husband, Christian, who tried to weather the storm at their home on Tortola, from Wednesday until Saturday, when she learned he was safe, although their home is wrecked.
“There is debris all over the island. There seems to be no information and people are running around like headless chickens. It looks like the government building in Tortola has been totalled, but there has to be some more coordination. People on the ground are starting to panic, and I can hear it in my husband’s voice,” said Thompson.
Video from the BVI has shown that many wooden structures have been reduced to kindling, while many concrete buildings have been badly damaged and some have been destroyed.
“People are talking about supplies going in, but there is a need to get stuff out. It’s well over 30°C and it’s humid and dirty. Houses are not secure and there is raw sewage, rubbish and rotting food and there are rats and birds going into the houses,” said Thompson.