“My mum is 83 and has Alzheimer’s. And she’s not mobile. When the hurricane came she hid behind the fridge and we didn’t get to her until morning.”
Claire and her mum live in the beautiful British Virgin Islands.
Normally a Caribbean tourist destination, the islands were hit by three crises in 2017.
First there was major flooding in August.
Then Hurricane Irma, one of the strong hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, hit in September.
Hurricane Maria followed just 12 days later.
“Mum’s apartment was totally destroyed”
The high winds and driving rain devastated these islands. Boats were tossed in the air and turned upside down. Cars still drive around with their windows blown out.
Eighty per cent of homes were damaged, including Claire’s and her mother’s.
“Mum’s apartment was totally destroyed, everything was smashed – all the windows, all the doors – so I took her to live with me.
“I live upstairs and my mum lives downstairs. My apartment got a lot of water in it – all the furnishings are damaged but it’s intact.
“The roof lifted a bit but it stayed on, thank God,” Claire said.
The islands are a British overseas territory, so the British Red Cross already had a branch there. Volunteers began to help as soon as possible.
We also launched our Hurricane Appeal, where funds donated by the public were matched by the UK government, up to £3 million.
One of our first steps was to help people sleeping in evacuation centres after their homes were destroyed.
Volunteers transported injured people to hospital and also distributed food, water and essential supplies in the main island of Tortola.
- Support the Disaster Fund so we’re ready to help when the next disaster strikes
Tourism smashed along with homes
While the islands are sometimes known as a millionaires’ playground, not everyone is wealthy and many people have no insurance.
A lot of homes and businesses have still not been repaired, and electricity and water have not been reconnected in some places.
All of this has left the tourist industry – one of the biggest industries – badly affected, and many people no longer have jobs.
“I got made redundant after the hurricane,” Claire said.
“I was a waitress in the cafe at Nanny Cay but that closed.”
Cash grants make sense
Nowadays, the British Red Cross often gives cash grants to help people after emergencies.
Working through our local partners and volunteers, we target the people who need help most. This includes families with serious damage to their homes, those on a low income or people who have small children, for example.
Families can use the grants to buy what they need. This can range from food to helping to fix a new roof, or from repairing a stove to paying school fees.
If we gave one kind of emergency relief, such as food parcels, it wouldn’t allow this flexibility.
Grants also make economic sense.
We avoid flooding local markets with imported relief supplies, which can undermine local suppliers and producers.
When people spend their grants, they stimulate the local economy.
Finally, it is a lot cheaper to distribute cash via mobile phones, cheques or banks than to fly relief goods around the world.
This means we use donated funds more efficiently.
Cash helps pay bills and buy food for Mum
Claire heard about the cash grants on the British Virgin Islands Red Cross Facebook page.
“It was very easy to register,” she said.
“I went and signed, and two days later I got a text saying it was approved.”
She has now received two out of three cash grants of around $800.
“I’m not in the worst situation, but I’m not in the best either,” Claire explained.
“Your assistance was very, very appreciated and well accepted and I give God thanks for it.
“It went a long way to pay my bills and provide food for Mum. I’ve also used it to buy clothes for her.”
As for the future, Claire says, “I can’t be a volunteer for the Red Cross because I need to work.
“But if you need any extra help later, sure!
“Right now, I think it’s one of the best things in the world.”