In the wake of Hurricane Irma, the destruction suffered in the British Virgin Islands has been described as apocalyptic, and the devastation reminiscent of war.
“It’s just carnage here,” Freeman Rogers, a local resident and the editor of the BVI Beacon, told The Washington Post last week.
That imagery is not lost on Virgin Group founder Richard Branson.
The British billionaire rode out the storm in the wine cellar of his home on his private Caribbean island, then wrote in a blog post that he had “never seen anything like this hurricane.”
Days later, he invoked a post-World War II reconstruction effort in Europe to describe what he believes must take place to help the Caribbean islands hammered by Irma, whose historically savage winds and flooding left at least 34 dead.
“The region needs a 'Disaster Recovery Marshall Plan' for the BVI and other territories that will aid in recovery, sustainable reconstruction and long-term revitalisation of the local economy,” he wrote Sunday on his blog, his platform of choice since Irma passed over Branson's Necker Island.
“The UK government will have a massive role to play in the recovery of its territories affected by Irma — both through short-term aid and long-term infrastructure spending,” Branson wrote.
The European Recovery Program was a U.S.-led effort to inject $13 billion into the economy of 16 European nations with agriculture and industrial production hollowed out by the war. It has been forever linked to then-Secretary of State George C. Marshall, who powerfully called for substantial aid to Europe during a speech at Harvard University in 1947.
By many measures, the plan was a success, with a 150 percent increase in standard of living over the next three decades in participating countries, according to the Marshall Foundation, and stronger ties with Europe on diplomatic and economic levels. Launched in 1948, the aid effort concluded in 1952.
“Over the coming weeks, we’ll have to assess exactly what is needed. It is clear to me creating jobs is paramount — there will be a huge amount of rebuilding to be done and people will need work to help rebuild their lives as well as their homes,” Branson wrote on his blog.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said her government is allocating more than $41 million for hurricane relief efforts.
Britain's international development secretary, Priti Patel, announced Wednesday that the British navy, along with several Royal Marines and a contingent of military engineers, has been dispatched to the Caribbean with makeshift shelters and water purification systems.
On St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, “people there are roaming like zombies,” said Stacey Alvarado, a bar owner who managed to leave for the mainland. Her husband, who is still there, told her Sunday that residents and tourists are in shock.
“They don’t know what to do,” she said. “The island was wiped out. It’s like the walking dead down there.”
Other islanders sent social media messages pleading for help, decrying looting and a series of armed burglaries.
Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, said Barbuda was “barely inhabitable” and “literally a rubble.”
Branson is looking to do his part to change that. His company will plant seeds in the recovery effort by tasking his foundation, Virgin Unite, to coordinate aid and supplies in the short term and reconstruction efforts in the months ahead, he wrote.
Last week, Branson dictated his vivid updates and notes on the destruction near Necker Island through a satellite phone after communications networks were brought down.
“The boats are piled up like matchsticks in the harbour. Huge cargo ships were thrown out of the water and into rocks. Resorts have been decimated,” Branson said Friday after a tour of Virgin Gorda, a nearby island southwest of Necker. “The houses have their roofs blown off; even some churches where people sheltered have lost roofs. But the whole British Virgin Islands community is rallying round,” he said.
Branson had said earlier that his compound was built with reinforced hurricane blinds designed to withstand high winds.
But that wasn't the case for the surrounding area — or the rest of 74-acre Necker Island, his property for four decades.
“I have never seen anything like this hurricane. Necker and the whole area have been completely and utterly devastated. We are still assessing the damage, but whole houses and trees have disappeared,” he said.
“Outside of the bunker, bathroom and bedroom doors and windows have flown 40 feet away.”
Branson is the 324th wealthiest person in the world, with a net worth of about $5 billion, according to Forbes, which notes that he bought Necker Island for $180,000. A few hours before Irma's impact, Branson wrote that he planned to retreat with his team to his concrete wine cellar below “the Great House.”
“Knowing our wonderful team as I do, I suspect there will be little wine left in the cellar when we all emerge,” he wrote on his blog.
Anthony Faiola contributed to this report.