Why this topic?
I chose this topic because of my personal connection to the islands I was researching within: the British Virgins Islands. I visited for the first time in 2017. I lived in the British Virgin Islands for the summer, working on scuba diving and sailing certifications. I had the opportunity to interact with many locals that summer.
The next time I visited was April 2019. It has been almost a year and half since hurricane Irma and Maria struck the islands, and some of even the most inhabited islands are still in rubble.
It is painful to see a place once so pristine look broken. But it is easy to forget these emotions as soon as you leave your destination. It is also easy to write off these devastating hurricanes as ‘unlucky’, but it doesn’t seem to be chance that has increased the intensity and amount of hurricanes. Before leaving for my most recent trip to the British Virgin Islands, I wanted to have some background knowledge on why Irma and Maria were so close to each other in time, and why they damaged the BVI so hard.
I started with three questions:
- Where do hurricanes hit the most?
- Have there been more hurricanes in recent years than before?
- What countries have been/will be affected by climate change the most?
The above graphs are to give an idea of some of the very plausible correlations showing that climate change is increasing hurricanes. It is also to show which countries are being affected most by climate change. Models created by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions predict a 45-87 percent increase in the frequency of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes.
Once I had considerable evidence, I continued forward with my project. It was easy to see the infrastructure of the BVI had taken a huge hit, but I wanted to know how the island was recovering.
I ended up connecting with three individuals in the British Virgin Islands to gain diverse perspectives to better understanding my topic.
The first was named Gregory:
Gregory has lived his whole life in the BVI on the island of Anegada. He has 5 children that now study at the universities on the islands of Tortola or St. Thomas. He leads conch tours for tourists. However it wasn’t always that way. Gregory used to work in the only water company on the island. Following the hurricanes, Irma and Maria, so many of the employees had fled to either the main island of the BVI, Tortola, or the US Virgin Islands. Therefore Gregory was left without a home and without a job on a tiny island. That’s when he decided to partner with his friend to create a tour of the practicing of conch farming off the coast of the island.
Gregory explained that after the hurricanes, he decided he needed to make a life out of the resources the island still had left. On the island of Anegada, that is conch. Gregory avoided most questions I asked about the days the hurricanes hit the BVI, describing them as “terrifying”. He did tell me that while he lost his main job due to the hurricanes, he also understood that his islands are prone to hurricanes. He “isn’t surprised by the state of Anegada.” Gregory hopes that the water company will be able to run again, but he worries that the hurricanes will keep coming, stronger and stronger.
The next person spoke with was a 6 year-old boy from the island of Jost Van Dyke named Joshua. Jost Van Dyke is known for being one of the most touristy islands in the BVI, so I knew it would be a great place to compare the look of the economy on the island now to before the two hurricanes. I was originally planning to speak with the owner of the famous bar on the island called “The Soggy Dollar”. The bar closed for almost 6 months following Irma and Maria. When I got to the beach where the bar is, I was approached by Joshua. About half way through our conversation I discovered he was the son of the owner of the Soggy Dollar. I ended up engaging in a long and interesting conversation with him. I found it extremely important to have connected with someone as young as him because he had a unique perspective.
The first thing Joshua told me was that “the hurricane made the bar better.” I was drawn in by this statement, and I wanted to know what made him say something so contradictory to most of the other opinions I had heard from. From what he explained in very simple, 6 year-old way, I understood that the bar had received a lot of attention from the media after being destroyed by the hurricanes. It also gave the bar a chance to redesign and remodel their store front and menu. Therefore, Joshua explained, the island was sad for awhile but it came back better. Though he added, “I know it will be sad again soon”.
While Joshua makes a good point, that the destruction of his family’s business allowed them to have a fresh start, not all business in the BVI have the same financially stability or reputation as the Soggy Dollar. If I hadn’t seen the bar before the hurricanes I wouldn’t have trusted Joshua as much, but he was right. The island looked more put together, but it clearly had the most outside influence. Considering Jost Van Dyke is one of the most touristy islands, it had clearly received more help than any other island.
The last person I interviewed was named Luke. He is a South African sailing captain that works for a charter company in the British Virgin Islands. Luke has only lived in the BVI since November of 2018, so I thought his perspective would be interesting considering he has only lived in the islands post-hurricane.
He thought that he had seen great improvement in the last few months. Luke also mentioned that it was mostly local efforts he has seen rebuilding the island. Luke’s direct connection to tourism, working for a charter company, made him see the effects of the hurricanes on that industry. Nearly three quarters of the charter company’s boats were destroyed in the hurricanes. The financially burden on the company was the biggest problem. Following that, would be the decrease in tourists in the following weeks and even months after the hurricanes.
One organization that was brought up by Luke is called One Love BVI (https://onelovebvi.org). Their mission is to provide “aid, supplies, and volunteers to help families, communities, and businesses get back on their feet and build a thriving, sustainable future.” Their administration is made up of locals and immigrants. The organization has been very influential in the recovery from hurricanes Maria and Irma. Other organizations such as Virgin Unite (https://www.virgin.com/unite/supporting-bvi) and the British Virgin Islands Recovery Fund (https://www.pledgeling.com/virgin-islands-recovery/) are contributing to the recovery efforts. However, there is also a website called “Responsible Travel” (https://www.responsibletravel.org/getInvolved/caribbeanRelief.php), that has a page specifically dedicated to list the ways tourists can contribute to the Caribbean hurricane relief effort. After discovering this website I finally understood the point of my project:
I learned much from speaking to the 3 individuals in the British Virgin Islands about the hurricanes that wounded them so deeply. While I understood much about the economic and social recovery, I never heard mention of climate change from my interviews or the organizations I found. To me, the absence of connecting the issue of intensified hurricanes to climate change is at the core of my project. Not one of my interviewees discussed climate change when they spoke about the fears of hurricanes coming more often and/or stronger. I believe that it is not only the lack of education that stands in the way of the solution, but the inequality that is so deeply engrained in the effects of climate change. To call it anything less than “inequality” would be an understatement. The British Virgin Islands alone are not responsible for the warming of our oceans and rising seal level, but the hurricanes caused by that do most of the damage in places such as the BVI. The beautiful people of these islands continue to put band aids over the bullet holes that are the result of an issue greater than two “coincidental” hurricanes.
I found the website describing how foreigners can donate, work, or volunteer to aid the hurricane recovery in the British Virgin Islands a perfect example of what I believe is a step towards the solution. We must acknowledge that the effects of climate change have become an issue of global inequality. We must decide that the solution lies beyond the borders of our countries. It is no longer about hurricanes, but about the countries causing most of the climate change, the countries with the resources, to take responsibility. This is not only in the hands of our leaders and policy makers. This is in the hands of each person of Earth.
I have no country to fight for: my country is the earth, and I am a citizen of the world.Eugene V. Debs