The power of social media is helping to connect victims of Hurricane Irma in the British Virgin Islands and spreading word about the aid needed as search and recovery efforts get underway.
Hurricane Irma hit the group of 60 small islands in the Caribbean late Wednesday leaving a path of destruction in its wake. Tortola, the largest and most populated island has seen the most extensive damage.
“I’ve seen one photo with a house with a roof on it still,” said Jennifer Turnbull, an Esquimalt resident who lived and worked on Tortola for three years. Her brother BJ also called the island home for close to 12 years and the pair have been trying to make contact with friends still there.
Turnbull said there is a strong ex-pat community on the island, many of whom have ties to Victoria. Tortola has no fresh water source so reaching residents to provide aid is crucial. Turnbull said she heard word that people were taking shelter in their cisterns.
“Entire roads were washed away,” Turnbull said. “It’s a very mountainous island and everything is at sea level. Apparently there were 25 foot waves, the risk of a landslide is high. It’s all so open.”
The Facebook group BVI Abroad – Hurricane Irma already has 20,000 members and Turnbull said the group has been the best resource to keep people updated. A lot of information is third or fourth hand, Turnbull said, “but that’s better than nothing because nothing was coming from the country.”
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“The situation is so desperate,” she said, adding there are reports that people have already run out of water, a prison was demolished, inmates had escaped and looting has begun.
On islands widely known for their stunning vacation locales, Turnbull isn’t worried about people who may have homes to go to in other countries.
“My big worry is the islanders living there that don’t have anywhere else to go,” she said. “I really worry for the people who don’t have the money and the means to make contact.”
Sir Richard Branson, who owns Necker Island and survived the hurricane in his wine cellar, is covering the overhead costs for Virgin’s relief fund so 100 per cent of donations can go directly to the communities impacted. And VISAR (Virgin Islands Search and Rescue) has set up a page to help with their efforts supporting the emergency team running out of Peebles Hospital on Tortola.
The hurricane warning has been downgraded to a tropical storm watch as Hurricane Jose heads toward the Caribbean. There were five deaths reported in the British Virgin Islands and Turnbull said there are still a lot of people unaccounted for.
“I’m trying to remain positive,” Turnbull said. “The Facebook group is just on fire. Even in the best of times in the country, cell signals are choppy and communication can be a struggle there.”
But she’s already started to see a silver lining in the dark cloud of Irma. “Everyone’s concerned and really pulling together. The power of community is definitely uplifting right now.”
As of Saturday morning, 250 British Marine Commandos had landed in BVI and begun relief efforts on the ground.