Just hours before Maria battered the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean, Adventist Review communication director and news editor Costin Jordache spoke with ADRA Emergency Response Coordinator Jefferson Kern, who is with videographer Tim Wolfer on the ground in the island of Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands. Kern discussed what ADRA is doing and plans to do to assist with the recovery efforts in the area.
Costin Jordache: What is the scope of ADRA’s involvement in the area where you are currently located? To what degree is ADRA participating in disaster relief following Hurricane Irma?
Jefferson Kern: As soon as Irma hit [the British Virgin Islands], we put together a team of responders and traveled to the islands. It took us a while get here because the airports were closed. Our first goal was to provide food supplies and distribution for about 800 families. We are working in coordination with the National Disaster Operations—a national entity—and they have assigned the church and ADRA to cooperate in Region VI, distributing food and giving support there.
Our shipment to the island of Tortola was canceled because of Maria, and now we are expecting to receive the shipments on Saturday. We have shipped 2,000 tarps and 2,000 hygiene kits to be distributed. We are involved in this first response, which is to provide as many supplies as we can and distribute them in coordination with national operations in place.
We’ll be meeting with the Ministry of Education on Thursday to discuss further activities of ADRA in the islands. The idea is that our involvement becomes more than just a first response.
What do you think are the greatest current needs on the islands?
Right now, everybody is on standby because of Hurricane Maria. People are very scared about the situation. At first, we received reports that 90 percent of houses [in Tortola] had been affected. We have conducted a more thorough survey, and we have found out that in some regions, 60 percent of houses have been affected. But we have from 60-90 percent of the population without a roof or a place to stay.
Several places are taking them in. There are ten shelters. One of them is our Seventh-day Adventist School, that is operating as a temporary shelter. Everybody is trying to find a place to stay. Tarps were one of the greatest needs until now. Now those tarps are useless because everybody tried to cover their houses to protect them from rain, but when Maria arrives, they’ll be destroyed. So tarps are going to be the greatest need again after Maria.
There are food supplies in the city, but people are running out of money. It is an island highly dependent on tourists, but [the arrival of tourists] has stopped for almost two weeks, so people will start experiencing an inability to purchase food, even when there is still food in the markets. So we need to receive and distribute more food.
There is also need for water. We received shipments of water that were distributed, but water is always a need in the islands.
Do you have any idea about the toll on Seventh-day Adventist families and institutions such as local churches and schools, or [church] buildings?
There are seven churches in Tortola. Two of them were not affected. Three were destroyed. In one church, the second floor was completely ripped off. Only the lower level is still standing, though it has also been destroyed.
Are there any injuries or casualties among Adventist members or families that you are aware of?
Not that I am aware of. There were four casualties on the island, which is a pretty low number considering there are 28,000 inhabitants. There was a fifth casualty, an electrical worker who was electrocuted as he tried to restore power.
What preparations are taking place right now for Hurricane Maria, and are they in any way different from the preparations for Irma?
Preparations for these kind of storms are usually similar. The big difference now with Irma is that debris is already loose on the streets. It is a big concern. You don’t need a Category 5 storm to cause the same damage as Irma because all the debris is already there. So even a small wind could pick it up again and send it everywhere.
Also, the city has storm drains directing water into the ocean to prevent flooding. Due to Irma, however, all the city storm drains were filled with debris. Cleaning those storm drains have been a priority. [The government] has implemented a curfew, because they are trying to take as many people as possible off the streets so they can clean the city storm drains. It is indeed a motive of great concern right now.
What is the mood of the local people? What can you perceive on the ground?
Caribbean people are lovely people. They take things lightly, in the sense that they do not worry too much. I was sharing today that sometimes we seem more worried than the local residents. I guess it is a cultural reality.
We can see that they are very thankful to be alive. We see it when we drive around and stop to greet people. They say, “We lost a lot, but God is good.”
We recently had the confirmation that Maria is a Category 5 storm. We can see that people are apprehensive, but they are optimistic this is not going to be [too much] because God is in control. I find it a good lesson for us.
Is there anything else you would like the Adventist global family to know about this situation?
I must thank the Adventist community for being supportive of ADRA’s efforts. We have seen our brothers and sisters at the airport and on the streets. Everyone is happy to know that ADRA is here.
At the same time, I would like to appeal to the Adventist family to keep supporting ADRA. Sometimes, when there is no emergency, we stop contributing. But we need your constant support to keep doing this wonderful work, supporting everyone without looking at creed or race, as the brothers and sisters that we are.
So please keep supporting ADRA and praying for this situation.