Last week tested the will and resilience of the people on the storm-stricken islands decimated by Hurricane Irma.
The hellish storm produced heartbreaking images. Corrugated tin roofs sheared off, wire fences twisted into grotesque shapes, mangled masses of electrical lines, cars flipped and submerged, collapsed buildings, streets turned to rivers, uprooted palm trees and the personal belongings of peoples' lives scattered randomly on a landscape of rubble.
Damage assessments still are underway, and updates continue to pour in now that the skies have cleared, but we know that several islands in the northeastern Caribbean are sprawling disaster zones in terms of infrastructures, hotel plants, local housing, schools and businesses.
However, amidst the chaos, there emerged some heroes and stories that are rays of hope.
During the height of the storm on St. Barts, someone managed to post a photo on Facebook of a lone palm tree in Gustavia. The tree was being battered by wind and rain. It was swaying mightily but still upright.
The photo drew comments immediately. Someone dubbed the tree Hector, and thus a fan club was born, as viewers cheered on the tree with messages of encouragement.
Hector survived, although much on that French island did not.
The Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association and Tourism Cares have partnered to assist with the recovery needs of the destinations decimated by Irma. The Caribbean Tourism Recovery Fund was created to unite the industry and pool resources aimed at providing support to help affected areas rebound as quickly as possible.
"There is no shortage of needs for us to fill, given the scope of the storm's impact," Karolin Troubetzkoy, the CHTA's president, and Frank Comito, its director general and CEO, said in a joint statement. One example, they said, was employees who could benefit from training during the down time when properties are being restored.
Other needs include strengthening of hospitality studies programs and help with restoring destroyed visitor centers at airports.
"The islands' hotel and tourism associations need support to help tourism rebound as quickly as possible," Troubetzkoy and Comito said. "Implementing new marketing strategies to stimulate the economies once they are ready will be critical. The needs are tremendous, and we appeal to our tourism industry partners to help us address them in a big way."
Mike Rea, CEO of Tourism Cares, said that the industry would "leverage not just our donations but also our expertise and influence."
The government of Puerto Rico, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Health and Humans Services, successfully evacuated 1,028 people, mainly U.S. citizens, from St. Maarten and St. Thomas. Flights were carried out by six C130 aircraft from Puerto Rico, Kentucky and New York National Guard units. Lodging, food and medical assistance were rendered to the evacuees once they reached Puerto Rico.
Retired NBA star Tim Duncan, a native of St. Croix, pitched in with a donation of $250,000 for storm relief in the U.S. Virgin Islands and a promise to match other donations up to the first $1 million. Duncan also said he would charter a plane to shuttle supplies to St. Croix where they could be offloaded to St. Thomas and St. John.
Despite severe flooding in Havana and surrounding areas, Cuba sent more than 750 health workers to help out on other Caribbean islands ravaged by Irma.
Airbnb has activated its disaster relief tool in Antigua for residents impacted in Barbuda. "We are waiving our fees and dedicating a team of Airbnb employees to make this happen as fast as possible," said Shawn Sullivan, public policy lead for Central America and the Caribbean.
The Caribbean Tourism Organization has also set up a relief fund, which will channel monetary assistance to islands impacted by Irma.
The message, created by CHTA, speaks to the unity of the Caribbean region when disaster hits several of its islands.
Not long after after Irma tore through Anguilla, a message went up on Facebook, along with a color photo of the island's flag: "Anguillian heads are up, Irma can't stop us. We know God gives his hardest battles to his strongest. Strength and endurance. Together we rise."
Similar messages have gone up on the other islands where Irma left her mark.
These messages say much about the people of the Caribbean. We all can help by donating to the relief efforts and by continuing to promote, support and visit the rest of the islands in the region.