AU: Describe the situation on the ground as the hurricane hit?
JK: Hurricane Irma was a category 5 hurricane that passed directly over the BVI on Wednesday, 6 September 2017. The full strength of the storm was felt from around 10am that morning until the early evening when winds finally started to subside. A brief respite was felt when the eye passed over Tortola around midday but the storm returned with a vengeance bringing with it tornados and maximum winds of 220mph. During this time homes were ripped apart, vehicles and boats tossed around and dispersed and the landscape erased of any vegetation. People feared for their lives as they were forced to find any shelter they could to protect themselves and their families. Power had been lost from earlier that day and all telecommunications went down around 11am rendering people cut off from each other locally and from their friends and families overseas.
AU: What happened in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane?
JK: When Thursday dawned, the winds were still gusting and rain squalls continued to pass through. Some people set out immediately to track down family members and friends whilst other residents banded together to clear roads from fallen trees, debris and electricity poles. Whilst all roads were impassable at the beginning of that day many had been cleared by the afternoon through community efforts and the urgent need to reach supplies and medical care. Many were dazed and in shock from what they saw all around them and the monumental task that lay ahead. Tensions were further strained by reports of widespread looting and escaped convicts due to the destruction of certain parts of the prison. Supermarkets and gas stations were able to open for a few hours a day from the Friday but queues were very long and hot in the blazing heat.
AU: What was its impact on you personally and on the firm?
JK: Our house was badly damaged by Irma. Most of the French windows in the front parts of the house were blown out and a large proportion of the roof was blown off. After taking shelter in the basement for most of the storm, we spent the next few days trying to make the house as liveable as possible and to strengthen it in preparation for Hurricane Jose that was due to hit the BVI on the Saturday. In addition, we, along with our neighbours, cleared the road in order to provide access. On the Friday I made my way to the office. Due to an immediate closure of all schools and no home for the foreseeable future I was forced to relocate my family to the Cayman Islands where my son could attend school and I could travel back and forth between our Cayman office and the BVI. Appleby, as a Firm, rallied very quickly once we had confirmed that all of our staff members were safe and we relocated most of our staff to other offices by the following week to ensure firstly their personal safety and secondly that we were able to continue service to our clients.
AU: How was the firm prepared for the disaster?
JK: The Firm maintains a robust disaster recovery plan that we update regularly and communicate to staff prior to every hurricane season. As per our plan, staff were advised to make their preparations from Monday and the office was readied and closed from Tuesday lunchtime. Key staff members in other offices were also tracking the storm and prepared to trigger our evacuation procedures if and when necessary. All fee earners are equipped with laptops and are able to connect to our systems and work from any location remotely. Thankfully, our offices largely withstood Irma and a number of staff remained in the office allowing us to continue to work with the BVI Corporate registry and other key service providers.
AU: What has the firm learned as a consequence of it?
JK: Many of our colleagues in Cayman and Bermuda had experienced hurricanes beforehand. As a result, we were able to adopt the lessons learnt and protocols from this experience. However, no one could have anticipated the devastation of Irma which destroyed most emergency shelters and many public buildings. Hurricane Irma is reportedly the most powerful hurricane to make landfall in the Atlantic. Five people lost their lives in the BVI during this hurricane. Subsequently, the death rate increased due to the hardships imposed in the aftermath of the hurricane. Following Irma, we have since introduced a number of additional and enhanced procedures to ensure we can more easily locate staff post hurricane such as GPS tracking through google maps and extra satellite phones. We have also engaged an air evacuation partner in the event we are faced with this level of threat in the future.
AU: What contingency plans should firms make for a natural disaster?
JK: It is essential to maintain a disaster plan that considers the possible eventualities and communicate the protocols regularly to staff. Reinforcing the importance of being adequately prepared from a personal standpoint is critical. Locating staff quickly and being able to organise a quick evacuation if necessary is also paramount. It is imperative to ensure that the physical location of all staff is ascertained and recorded and that staff are aware of the disaster recovery steps and what is required from them. In addition, maintaining up to date copies of passports and visas is critical.
AU: What about the long term impact of the hurricane i.e. legislation, disaster planning, etc.?
JK: The passage of Hurricanes Irma and Maria has brought with it a number of changes in key areas. New building regulations are being introduced that mandate specific disaster strength construction and legislation has been drafted to introduce greener energy mechanisms. The Virgin Islands Recovery and Development Act was passed in April 2018 to set up the Recovery and Development Agency that will manage the recovery process following international standards and in keeping with the terms of the UK loan guarantee.
AU: Any other comments?
JK: Natural disasters are a reality for law firms operating in many regions around the world. These disasters should not and will not deter firms operating in these areas, but preparation is key to minimising the risk and ensuring ongoing operations with the minimum amount of disruption.