Suffolk police officers reveal “humbling” experience in British Virgin Islands following Hurricane Irma
“Although we could see the devastation, they still had smiles on their faces. That’s why we say we have huge respect for them – we definitely saw the best side of humanity out there.”
Those were the words of one Suffolk police officer who spent three weeks in the British Virgin Islands helping people recover from the devastating impact of Hurricane Irma.
The hurricane struck the biggest of the islands, Tortola, on September 9, and within just three days Suffolk police’s Pc Pete French and Pc Jon Harvey were on a flight to the stricken island as part of a contingent of 53 officers from the south east region tasked with aid and assistance.
The pair were among five officers selected from Norfolk and Suffolk’s police forces.
Originally deployed to help with police duties, particularly following reports of some looting in the immediate aftermath as families desperately tried to feed their families, they were tasked with guarding government buildings, helping manage supermarket re-openings and making sure aid supplies were unloaded safely.
But they soon found themselves helping out in any way they could.
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Over the three week stint 24-hour days were not uncommon as they spent their free time helping locals, while other colleagues helped at hospices and children’s centres.
But nothing could prepare them for seeing just how rife the devastation was.
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“We had seen some coverage on the news so I knew the island had been devastated...But it’s a lot different seeing it in real life – it gives you a bit of tunnel vision but when you see that devastation on every corner, it’s pretty impactful,” said Pete.
Alongside their policing duties, the two officers spent their time helping out those in need.
Among those was a diabetic woman who was in desperate need of help. The officers took her home for her medication and helped save what was left of her house. They also spent an hour helping a man in his 70s to clear storm drains.
Prior to the hurricane, the island was a hotspot for sailing and tourism, and despite the widespread damage the officers said they still managed to see its “incredible beauty”.
Indeed the most beauty they encountered was among the people themselves. Despite their own hardship, and given that many had lost everything they owned, the locals were still able to take the time to thank the officers, and even help out when the officers suffered a tyre blowout on their vehicle.
“Given the fact that everywhere we went there was devastation, they would always thank us and say how grateful they were,” Pete said. “People would say without you here there would be so much trouble. It’s very humbling.”
The pair, despite their own difficulties working in the 35C heat and living on cold food ration packs, were inspired by those they encountered every day.
Jon said: “If you had a moment when you thought it was hard, you think after three weeks you can come home. These people haven’t got that luxury, so we were motivated to make a difference.”
Pete added: “There were people that didn’t have any food, so how could we whinge about having cold food?
“I felt at times I wasn’t doing anything to help, and thought I was being a burden to the locals having to be fed and watered, but they were all saying thank you for your service – being here you have stopped so much trouble.”
Remarkably, Jon struck a friendship with a stray dog, affectionately named Buddy, and has since adopted him. With help from a local family, vets and Humane Society International, Buddy was checked over and put in quarantine and is due to arrive in the UK soon. “I calmed him down and when he put his paws round me and his head in my lap I knew he didn’t want me to leave,” Jon said. “I knew then he was coming home.”
The island still has a long way to go as people continue to rebuild their lives, but Pete said he was buoyed by the response the locals had already shown. The experience has also made them reflect on their own lives.
Jon said: “When you get a puncture on your car you think it is a nightmare but actually it’s nothing. When you think of the devastation they have been through and still take the time to thank you, that is very humbling.
“It’s going to take them some time but they have got good momentum and a good work ethic. Hopefully when they get to a certain level then the tourism will come back. It really was a privilege to be a part of it.”