Rebuilding paradise after the storm

Published on November 21st, 2017

How the Midway Bar came to be destroyed is not in doubt: a 42ft sailing catamaran hangs 10ft above the former bar-room, still wedged in the ruins more than two months after Hurricane Irma made landfall in the British Virgin Islands (BVI).

But how it will ever be restored remains unclear: the Sundowner is just one of hundreds of wrecked boats still littered across the island – tossed ashore, dumped on the seabed or torn to pieces by Irma and its sister storm Maria.

“Irma destroyed me,” said the bar’s owner, Ecedro Thomas as he surveyed the devastation. “Thirty-two years this bar stood here. I’d have it rebuilt already if they’d just move this damn catamaran.”

With the local economy in tatters and the annual tourist season fast approaching, dealing with hurricane boats – and thousands of tonnes of other storm debris – is becoming an urgent priority for the BVI.

The government is acutely aware that it needs to restart the tourist economy and recently announced that visitors are once again welcome to the islands. But those expecting the paradise of old might have to wait.

When the BVI took the full force of Hurricane Irma on September 6, it was the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, with winds that averaged 185mph, gusting to 215mph. Less than two weeks later, the islands were hit for a second time by Hurricane Maria.

Such was the force of the wind that even boats secured in the most sheltered lagoons cartwheeled huge distances. On the shorelines, fibreglass boats are being raised daily by the few available cranes big enough to lift them. About 2,000 vessels are believed to have been destroyed.

“Around 80-90% of the BVI’s charter fleet was damaged,” says Michael Hirst, a local marine surveyor. “Of those, between 40 and 60% will probably be write-offs. Whether we’re repairing or disposing of them, we have a lot of boats to deal with.”

What happens to the wrecks next is unclear: options include scuttling them far out at sea, barging them to the US for disposal, or creating a new boatyard to repair or chop them up, while also creating jobs and training schemes.

It’s too early to say which option will prevail, though the government has said that it won’t allow wrecked boats to simply be sunk offshore, where they will eventually break up and float to the surface in pieces.

A home in the British Virgin Islands after it was hit by Hurricane Irma, the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. ©LPhot Joel Rouse / Handout/EPA

When residents awoke the day after Irma, their tropical island views had gone from paradise to post-nuclear. The strength of the wind tossed shipping containers and pealed roofs. Almost every tree was stripped of leaves and bark, then broken or blown away.

And for a small territory which sold itself on its natural beauty, the disposal of thousands of tonnes of debris has become a new national emergency.

“I heard an estimate that in the first month we processed a year’s worth of garbage,” says Anslem Myers, assistant manager at the department of waste management. “That sounds about right.”

In normal times, most of the islands’ unsorted garbage is incinerated; like many other small territories, BVI is simply unable to recycle.

“If you could make a profit out of it,” says Myers, “a lot of people would have been doing it already.”

Charlotte McDevitt, a PhD specialist in the subject and founder of the local non-profit, Green VI, said that small islands around the world face similar challenges when it comes to dealing with waste.

“It’s difficult being so far from the recycling markets,” she said. “People don’t pay for waste in the Caribbean so we have to find ways to reduce it and process what we can locally.”

At Coxheath, one of several new debris management hubs set up since the storms, trucks drive in between two 40ft ridges of garbage half a mile long. Once there, they tip their backs up and a large yellow excavator scrapes out the contents, grabs bucketfuls and adds them to the ever-growing pile. Moments later, the next truck arrives.

Now that roads have been cleared, Myers’ team is starting on the next task: picking through the waste, taking out metals and pushing organic waste on to burn piles. Plastic and household waste goes into the incinerator. What happens to the metals is not yet known.

Julie Swartz, whose tiny recycling startup, Green and Clean BVI, has found itself in sudden demand to tackle some of the questions. “Most of these boats are made of fibreglass, which, if it is processed right, can be used for aggregate in concrete.

“Organics go to compost; wood is getting made into charcoal; plastic and aluminium cans go into a compactor and metals are separated into different types,” says Swartz. Galvanized roofing, she tells me, is chopped into small pieces and put into the baler for shipping to a recycler in Florida.

Swartz believes she can bring the load down just by separating and flowing the different materials to the right places. “And no, I’m not making any money out of it,” she says. “But we are making enough to pay between four and eight people who’ve been employed every day since the storm.”

Once the immediate debris crisis has been dealt with, the BVI government hopes to make the territory a model of resilience for the future and establish a long-term recycling system, says Greg Massicote manager of the government’s department of waste management.

“We very much see this as an opportunity to implement a system that’s much better than the one we had before.” he says.

Source: The Guardian

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