A few days after Category 5 Hurricane Irma barreled through Antigua, Barbuda and the Virgin Islands on September 6th and 7th, Ben Bourgeois joined up with Jon Rose and his team at Waves For Water to fly to St. Croix — the only island in the VI's unaffected by Irma — to set up basecamp and help get clean water into as many homes and neighborhoods as possible.
And then came Category 5 Maria, which slammed into St. Croix head-on before devastating Puerto Rico, making life, and recovery efforts, 100 times harder throughout the Caribbean.
In the six weeks since, Ben, Jon, and the entire Waves For Water team has been working tirelessly each day to provide clean water to as many people as possible and as quickly as they humanly can. We called Ben to get an update on the situation six weeks after the first storm.
Talk us through the last six weeks since Hurricane Irma devastated the Caribbean.
It’s been a pretty wild experience. But we are—and they are—definitely making some progress down here. Our original plan, which was to base ourselves out of St. Croix after Irma and strike all of the outer islands with filters, got flipped completely upside down when we took a direct hit from Maria while we were there. Up until recently, they weren't letting boats leave the harbor in St. Croix, and so it was nearly impossible to maneuver anywhere else. But we just finally got access to the BVI's and were able to do a ton of work over there, which was really good. We've been over on Tortola and Jost Van Dyke for the last five days.
Was that your first time laying eyes on those two hard-hit islands?
Yeah, and it's another level of destruction compared to the USVI's [Virgin Islands]. The winds they got from Irma were like nothing anyone has ever seen before. There were multiple tornadoes inside the eyewall and they were getting gusts well over 200 mph. 60-foot catamarans spun hundreds of feet in the air. Boats that were on the North Coast somehow ended up on the South Coast. Shipping containers were completely moved. Crazy shit. And that's not to take away from the devastation Maria did to Puerto Rico and the USVI's, because it's awful there as well, but Tortola, Virgin Gorda and Jost Van Dyke were hit especially hard. The damage is unbelievable, and what we're seeing today is weeks after. All the trees are gone. Buildings are completely leveled. Nothing looks the same.
How are the local communities handling it all?
Generally, the vibe has been pretty good everywhere. Everyone is in pretty good spirits. The locals are still super welcoming; they're a resilient group that seem really pumped to try to get things back up-and-running for this winter. They want to be open. Foxy's [in Jost Van Dyke] is working toward getting things ready so they can still have their annual New Years Party.
Aside from the filters you're delivering, do these areas even have any other way to access to clean water?
Not really. Free supplies were flown in after the storm, but that's all gone now. A few grocery stores are opening back up, but a lot of people don't have money or can't access their money, so that's not even an option.
With such a massive swatch of destruction, how did you guys go about formulating a game plan?
We're really leaning on our local connections. That's what Waves For Water has always done. We have core connections with community leaders who know who needs these filters the most. One system can do 100 gallons per day, so it's important we get them to places where they can use them properly so that a lot of people can access clean water. We've been going to orphanages, schools, shelters, and getting them in the hands of neighborhood leaders who can facilitate and educate everyone and get people working together. We just don't have enough to give everyone a filter, unfortunately. On Tortola, we have Alex Woo, from BVI Surf School, distributing filters to key people and places. Guys like Alex are a tremendous part of why Waves For Water works so well.
How long do you guys plan to distribute filters on-location in the Caribbean?
For awhile. We're still trying to make it to Dominica—which was hit as hard as anywhere—but that's been a difficult process, though we plan to be on the ground there in the next 10 days. And we'll be coming back around to everywhere we've already provided filters in the coming months to make sure everything is installed properly and working the way it should be. So it's about a lot more than just handing out filters. It's going to be a long process.
As time goes by, they're having some serious issues with water, and some of it may get worse. They've found a few cases of Leptospirosis and E. Coli, so it's not a problem that's going away anytime soon. Access to clean drinking water is more important now than ever. And another big thing is that hygiene is declining, because people are cleaning themselves in dirty cistern water. So we're really trying to make sure people understand the importance of not just drinking this filtered water, but bathing in it as well, to help avoid the spread of disease. It's going to be a long way back, but eventually, we'll get there.
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