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Rebuilding Paradise: The British Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma

The BVI (British Virgin Islands) is boasting that it's open and ready to welcome tourists. We were in the first wave to visit these islands three months after Hurricane Irma struck in September. But just how ready is it?

I saw the BVI immediately after Irma hit and witnessed the chaos. It looked like Ground Zero.

Nearly everything was destroyed or damaged. Normal life obliterated. Even the prison gates were blown off and the men roaming free.

Now security is under control and the roads mostly passable. There are no food shortages although power and electricity still in short supply off the main routes and main islands.

Many people including those who work in the Financial Services industry have relocated to less damaged parts of the Caribbean and there are concerns they might not come back.

There are huge challenges for the British Virgin Islands. Credit: ITV/On Assignment

Crucially most hotels and some marinas - the mainstay of the islands’ boutique luxury tourist industry - need re planning and rebuilding. But there is a spirit of optimism driving the recovery which is undeniable.

As a journalist I’m used to chasing the negative but that’s not something the people who live on the BVI, or the expatriates who invest in it, would do. British aid has helped and those who live on this British protectorate don’t feel forgotten.

Only some expressed frustration at the speed of the recovery operation which will take months even years.

You hear two expressions when you spend time in the BVI:

  • One is “everything is all 'mashed up'”, which is the best description there is about what Hurricane Irma did - “mashing up” homes and cars and even roads.
  • The other is “we have life” which reflects the attitude of those who live here who appear more resilient to the devastation caused by natural disasters - because they are used to them.

Even those left jobless because the tourist industry is on its knees were accepting that jobs will return when the tourists return next year.

The crucial luxury sailing sector is already welcoming yachts and charters for business. Credit: ITV/On Assignment

There are huge challenges: the BVI is tiny. All materials for the rebuild have to be imported along with the any specialist expertise to do it and, without the tourist industry bringing in any income, the coffers for the $3 billion rebuild are running low.

There will be much dependence on private investment to bring the BVI back to life and it will take several years - although the crucial luxury sailing sector is already welcoming yachts and charters for business.

Paradise hasn’t been lost - it’s just been buried under rubble. With the help of private investment and British money the plan is to build back the BVI stronger and greener.

I believe it can happen - so for once this is a good news story.

And once the tourists they so badly need return the pace of the recovery will quicken.

  • Watch On Assignment tonight at 11.15pm on ITV