The governor said there have been reports of casualties from Hurricane Irma, which hit the British Virgin Islands on Wednesday afternoon as ferocious Category 5 storm.
Irma cut electricity throughout the islands and knocked out other vital communications infrastructure, essentially leaving the British Virgin Islands’ 35,000 residents largely isolated not only from each other but also from the rest of the world. There are few ways for them to know when the British government is sending help — or whether it will get there before Hurricane Jose threatens to strike.
Several calls placed to people on the British Virgin Islands on Friday morning were met with error messages and busy signals. When calls went through, sometimes those on the other end could not hear. When a call finally connected to a local newspaper editor on Tortola, he said that he had ridden out Irma with a few dozen others in a choir loft at St. George’s Episcopal Church.
“It’s just carnage here,” said Freeman Rogers, a Road Town resident and the editor of the BVI Beacon.
“One concern right now is Hurricane Jose, whether or not it's going to hit us and how hard,” he said, explaining in a phone interview that people are running low on food and water, clean clothes and medical supplies. “People don’t have roofs. It'd be really rough if we got hit with another big hurricane.”
Rogers, originally from South Carolina, was able to get online Thursday and post a story and photo on his newspaper's website. Reporting from a churchyard, he touched on this key concern: “Communications are mostly down and many homes are largely inaccessible because roads are blocked with vehicles, telephone poles, roofing metal and other debris.”
He asked a Post reporter Friday to help him look up conditions on Hurricane Jose — now a strengthening Category 4 storm that could threaten these islands with tropical storm conditions by Saturday night.
On Wednesday, as Irma barreled toward the islands, Rogers and his girlfriend had put their cat, Bamboo, in a safer area in the hallway in their home and fled.
“We came to the shelter because we were worried the roof would blow off,” he said. The original shelter, a small building outside the church, started losing its metal roofing, Rogers said, so people sought shelter inside the sanctuary, where windows and doors had already been ripped from the hinges. Rogers said some friends hid in bathrooms at home, “literally holding onto each other so they wouldn't blow away.”
The cat, Rogers said, survived.
Thousands of miles away in Los Angeles, Sarah Thompson, who lives on the west end of Tortola on Frenchman's Cay, had spoken Wednesday morning to her husband, Christian.
Thompson, a British attorney, had gone to see friends on the West Coast during what she and her husband thought would be a mere tropical storm. He was hunkering down in their island home.
Abruptly, she lost all communication.
She tried to call and text him back, she said, but her messages would not go through.
She said she heard nothing until early Thursday, when she received a text from the wife of one of his friends:
“Using a tourist’s phone. We are all okay. Please let everyone know.”
Thompson tried to call and text back — getting crossed phone lines, or nothing at all.
British Virgin Islands Gov. Gus Jaspert acknowledged in a message on Facebook there was a frustrating vacuum of information because communications infrastructure was down across the islands.
“I know many of you are concerned about what will happen in the short term over the next couple of hours and days,” he said, encouraging people seeing the message to “share as widely as you can” because of communications difficulties. “I would like to appeal to you to remain calm and to reassure you that we are doing all that we can to assist you.”
British Virgin Island residents — and family members in other places — who were reached by The Washington Post said they understand that the United Kingdom is limited in what it can do until Hurricane Jose passes through.
But there is still a sense of frustration — not that the British government isn't responding to the dire need, but that there seems to be no clear strategy, and no good way to communicate it.
Prime Minister Theresa May has said that British military personnel have been working “round the clock” to provide relief to the battered islands. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Friday the RFA Mounts Bay — a ship carrying aid supplies and a crew capable of repairing damage — was heading to the islands from Anguilla on Friday morning to “distribute humanitarian aid.”
The British government has allocated more than $42 million to help victims on the British Virgin Islands, and more than 20 tonnes of shelter kits and solar lanterns were on their way to the Caribbean, according to a press release.
Official photos posted on Twitter showed a helicopter hovering over the deck of the ship, which the U.K.'s Department for International Development said was delivering supplies to Anguilla, with promises that more is on the way to the British Virgin Islands. John Duncan, the former governor of the British Virgin Islands, said in a tweet Friday morning that government aid had indeed arrived.
In need of answers, people on Facebook have been posting pleas, urgent information and photos of the destruction.
In a Facebook group called BVI Abroad — Hurricane Irma, someone posted a photo Friday showing a ship floating in front of mountainous terrain claiming “confirmed that the British Navy is in the BVI.” The group has also put together an online database “to help friends and family post the status of loved ones in the British Virgin Islands affected by Hurricane Irma. As many know the communications are down in most of the BVI and people are trying to find out if friends and family members in the BVI are safe.”
Thompson said she had seen the photo of the apparent navy ship but “there was no chronology of what was going to happen.”
“It’s not like the U.K. has been silent on it, but there’s not been a clear message on steps or what’s exactly going to happen,” she said. “In a situation like this, you need a strategy and a timeline, and there’s not been any of that.”
The Post tried to contact the governor's office numerous times Friday, but the phone rang continually, then gave a busy signal.
Thompson answered a call from The Post around sunrise Friday from a hotel room in Los Angeles. With a weary voice, she said she had not slept in 48 hours, too worried about her husband at home in the British Virgin Islands.
Seconds later, she got another call.
She said it was from someone she did not know — someone who was apparently using a satellite phone in Tortola, calling to give her a message. There was a long silence, then she said she had to phone her family and friends to give them the news.
“I just got a call,” she said. “My husband is alive.”