Few of us will not have been transfixed by the unfolding trail of devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma - as the long journey to  recovery starts Elizabeth Radford, our Senior UK Overseas Territories Officer, looks at the impact on our friends and colleagues working on affected islands as work on assessing the scale of the impact on conservation projects and the future of threatened species in the UK Overseas Territories. 

RSPB’s UK Overseas Territories team waited and watched with growing concern last week as Hurricane Irma gained strength.  Early on we knew this potentially deadly storm had four of the five Caribbean UK Overseas Territories where we work in her sights: Montserrat, Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands and Turks and Caicos. Paradise islands? Yes, but for us these names are inseparable from our colleagues and partners working on the front-line of conservation in these Territories.

So we watched and waited. We checked the swirling blob on tracking websites far too often. We contacted partners and noted their instructions (power will be shut off, minimal phone use, individuals will ring out once and relatives will post updates on social media). Normal conservation business ceased; meetings were postponed ‘till after’, hurricane preparedness began in earnest. Our rat eradication project team in Turks and Caicos stowed gear and evacuated to a safe house on the main island of Providenciales. A 20 foot storm surge was forecast. The mood was turning sober. Yes they were as ready as they could be; proverbial hatches had been battened down, water and food were in place, generators were primed and ready.

Then we watched as Irma landed, unleashed her fury and a rolling disaster unraveled across the Caribbean.  TV and internet news gathered pace, alongside the personal stories on our own Facebook feeds and WhatsApp groups, dominated by increasingly urgent requests for information. News from San Maarten/St Martin first: devastated.  Montserrat had escaped the storm as had Antigua. The relief didn’t last long, as Barbuda had been annihilated and Anguilla and the Virgin Islands had also taken a direct hit. Those ahead of the storm now knew what was coming. Turks and Caicos was smashed before Irma turned her attention to Florida. Finally ‘Safe’ messages start to trickle out, and were shared and shared. Power was largely out. Most people were physically OK, if mentally shell shocked. Some had been to hell and back to survive.

On Friday as relief efforts began in the Territories, we began to process the enormity of this event and what it means our partners, their homes, their families and livelihoods. Life will not ‘get back to normal’ next week, nor next month and probably not next year. One would hope the power lines will be repaired, the cell towers will go up and roads will be cleared fairly quickly. We believe all our colleagues are safe, however many have damaged homes and some have no homes at all. Vehicles have been written off, boats are smashed, transport between islands is difficult, communication with smaller islands still not re-established. The infrastructure of years of conservation programmes and projects has been destroyed: offices, docks, trails, signs, mooring points, animal breeding facilities, nurseries and biological records. This is crucial infrastructure that supports the all-important tourism revenue streams for the organisations of our partners. This is going to be a very long road of reconstruction.

The British Virgin Islands before and after the devastation of Hurricane Irma. Photo credit Earth Observatory

And the wildlife? Hundreds of thousands of trees are uprooted, those that aren’t are stripped of leaves, and vegetation has been ripped from exposed areas. Birds ‘cope’ in hurricanes in different ways, by hiding or flying away, some even head into storms continuing to migrate. But many don’t cope, they don’t survive or get caught up in the eye of the storm. Habitats are destroyed for all species, from sea turtle nests being washed out to sea, to freshwater habitats being inundated by salt. Food supplies diminish; fruits and nuts etc. are blown or washed away. The storms wash sediment into the sea that suffocates coral. Endangered species always suffer as their populations are already ‘on the edge’. The Caribbean UK Overseas Territories are known for their impressive reptiles and amphibians, many are globally threatened and 17% are classed as Critically Endangered. One of those is the Anegada Rock Iguana which is unique to only one of islands of the British Virgin Islands. Around 200 individuals exist in the wild and no one yet knows the current state of the breeding facility.

Anegada rock iguana - no one yet knows this species fate. Photo credit Lyndon John RSPB

Nature will recover, after a fashion, into the spaces like protected areas where it is allowed to do so. Some natural sites will have protected ‘human areas’ from total destruction….those stories will be told and hopefully heard. Because soon it will be the time to talk again of the humanitarian imperative of improving resilience of these island communities. The importance of soft not hard flood infrastructure, of managing coastal retreat, of protecting mangroves in Turks and Caicos, wetlands in Anguilla and dry forest across the region. The need to take bio-security seriously and prevent the introduction of invasive species that exacerbate habitat destruction such as invasive green iguanas, who strip the trees from leaves. 

Destruction on the British Virgin Islands. Photo credit National Parks Trust

The time will come (and soon) when we need to strengthen our advocacy to Governments (theirs and ours) to create proper Physical Development Plans for these territories. Plans that embed these principles of resilience, supported by adequate resources and the all-important political will for their execution.  Category 5 hurricanes will always cause horrendous damage but there is more that can be done to ameliorate that.  We know why streets flood and coastline crumbles, why hurricanes are getting bigger and storms more ferocious. We know. Now may not be the time, but the time is coming when Governments (ours and theirs) are forced to return to address this bigger picture. When they do, we all need to be ready to make #IrmasLegacy a triumph not just a tragedy.

Here is an article reviewing wider impact across the region.