December 7, 2017
Hurricane Irma was one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded. It swept through the Caribbean in early September, leaving destruction in its path not seen in living memory. Especially hard hit was the British Virgin Islands (BVI).
Watching closely from back in the UK was one of our pilots, Captain Chris Hall. Chris led a group of Virgin Atlantic people on a sailing challenge in the BVI last year and was planning another in November. “Because of the previous year’s sailing challenge, the BVI are a place that I felt we understood and had empathy with,” said Chris. “As the storm developed it became clear that it was on an unprecedented scale and it was obvious to me that we needed to do something to help.”
Using our aircraft to deliver humanitarian relief to the area, and with our teams on top of the efforts to repatriate our customers, Chris knew that we had things covered. But for him, it was the tragedy unfolding on the people of the BVI – who had been so welcoming the year before – that occupied his mind.
It was immediately obvious that this year’s planned sailing challenge had to be cancelled. That left a lot of people who had booked holidays and flights for the trip, and Chris saw an opportunity to do something positive. Why not try to fly out as planned but instead spend the time on the ground helping with the relief effort? That turned out to be easier said than done. But never one to back down from a good idea, Chris set about overcoming the huge number of logistical issues. They would be among the first visitors to the islands since the hurricane, and there would be local sensitivities that only people on the ground could understand. Enter Kim Takuechi from Unite BVI, the local branch of Virgin Unite. After Chris offered the services of his volunteers, Kim got to work to find the team a project and somewhere to stay. With the islands still in turmoil, there was no electricity or fresh water, but Chris offered to stay anywhere, and that ended up being the concrete floor of a warehouse.
The purpose of the project was to repair a school building on Virgin Gorda that had been badly damaged by Irma. Just a few weeks later, after arranging flights, transfers, accommodation and supplies, armed with equipment donated by generous companies, the team of 22 set off from Gatwick via Antigua to the islands. What they found when they arrived was devastation beyond their imagination and a community still struggling to come to terms with the enormity of what had happened. Looking out from the warehouse that was to be their home for the next week, the group were greeted with the sad sight of a wrecked boatyard. And yet they were welcomed with open arms by the islanders desperate for the first signs of normality, and visitors, returning.
The group consisted of people from all areas of the airline; pilots, engineers, cabin crew and office-based staff, as well as people from Virgin Holidays. “I knew this would be a once in a lifetime thing,” said Chris. “It was something I felt very strongly about. I knew we’d be making a huge difference. Every evening we were still able to explore the island. Despite all the destruction the beauty of this place was still shone through.”
As for the work, Unite BVI flew in a project manager who helped Virgin Atlantic’s very own engineering brothers Kieren and Tristan Blake plan and organise it all. What greeted them was a building that had half its roof blown off and had suffered a huge amount of damage to the walls and floors. “We had no idea what we were walking into,” said Kieren. “After a look around to assess the damage we came up with a plan based on what we thought we could achieve. Unite BVI sourced us the materials we needed, and with the help of some donated equipment we got to work.”
The team spent the next few days working on the roof and the interior of the school building. After clearing out the rooms and mopping up all the stormwater they put a temporary repair on the roof so they could get on with repairing the interior while the permanent roof repairs took place. Inside, the tiled floor needed to be removed and the walls prepared for painting. After replacing all the furniture and painting some decorative butterflies on the walls, the team had a bit of time left so managed to do a quick repair to the kindergarten roof as well.
“We were all very proud of what we achieved as a group,” said Chris. “We persisted with the idea of going there, and it has given me more of an appetite to bring even more of a ‘do good’ element to our adventures.”
“It was a trip of extremes,” added Kieren. “Flying into Beef Island and seeing all the destruction and boat wrecks for the first time was sobering. But to meet so many friendly people and help them get up on their feet again was fantastic.”
Once their work was done the group were invited to visit Necker Island where Richard and Joan gave them a tour of the island and spent some time chatting about the adventures. Richard, himself still rebuilding after the hurricane, expressed thanks to the adventurers for displaying the true spirit of Virgin, in their efforts to help the BVI rebuild. If there was one message to come from this epic trip, it would be that the Caribbean needs our support. “Go to the BVI, but go with your eyes open,” says Chris. “Although you can’t come in as a pure tourist and ignore the main event, go with the understanding that they are getting back on their feet. Know what’s taken place there but also know that you can still find lovely beaches and eat well, even if it is a bit scruffy around the edges.”
The group raised over two thousands pounds which have been donated to Unite BVI. They were generously supported by the following companies:
A message from Minister of Communication and Works, the British Virgin Islands from the website ccarribeanisopen.com https://caribbeanisopen.com/2017/10/10/british-virgin-islands/