When Hurricane Irma - the most powerful Atlantic storm in 10 years - hit the Caribbean at Category 5 this September, the effect was devastating. The destruction of houses on several Caribbean islands, including the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and St. Maarten, for example, was terrifying - and widespread. Not one area escaped unscathed.

DHL Express has small teams operating in both of those locations - 15 people on St. Maarten and 11 in the British Virgin Islands - and I would say 85 percent of them have either lost their homes completely, or their homes have been so badly damaged that they are currently uninhabitable. Our local General Manager left me a voicemail just as the hurricane hit and it's chilling to hear. Irma blew the roof off the apartment she was staying in. Like many others on these islands, she's now had to move in with family members or people whose homes have survived. Children have been sent away to relatives or friends in unaffected locations so that everyone can concentrate on rebuilding.

How long will that take? That's a tough question and I wouldn't like to put a timescale on it, but tourism is very important to these islands and the people's spirit here is incredible. I've spoken to some individuals in larger hotel chains in St. Maarten, and they were positive that they were going to be ready for next season in November 2018. Bad weather conditions have stopped me visiting the BVI for more than a few hours, but I can say that in St. Maarten, the cleanup efforts were visible hours after the storm, with trucks operating 24/7 to clear debris from the roads, and I have heard that the BVI has also made an incredible effort with cleanup and getting basic services up and running.

In the immediate aftermath of Irma, communications were badly affected, no flights were able to land in St. Maarten or the BVI, our offices were closed, and there were no places for customers to pick up or deliver shipments. When we drove around in a DHL van, the first thing people asked us was: "When will you guys be open again?"

The answer we gave them was 'as soon as possible.' The first thing we did was carry out an assessment of our team to make sure everyone was accounted for. Then it was a question of looking at the kind of misfortune they had suffered, which allowed us to work out the financial help we could provide them via our Deutsche Post DHL relief fund, 'We Help Each Other'. After their safety was assured, our job was to get relief goods into the islands - and, for that, we needed aircraft, which luckily started running fairly soon after Irma had passed. Lastly, we had to get our day-to-day delivery operations back up and running. I'm pleased to say that, just days after Irma struck, our office in St. Maarten was open, couriers were available, and pickup and delivery trucks were fueled and ready to go.

I've been so impressed with the resilience of our team in such terrible conditions. There's an idea that everything is laid-back in the Caribbean; but I was talking to Ivan, one of our gateway employees who had been driving a truck of relief goods from the airport to our office in St. Maarten, and he said that when the hurricane had passed, the first thing he did was go to his closet and look for his DHL uniform because he wanted to get back to work as soon as possible. His closet had been blown away - but there he was, reporting for duty. On the Friday after the hurricane, the team members arrived and started cleaning up the office, sorting through deliveries. Their 'can do' attitude is inspiring. 

At DHL we have a 'first in, last out' philosophy, and I believe that's what we ably demonstrated post-Irma. We are a global company but we think locally, too, and always want to be there for our staff and customers. So when events like this happen, we want to get in to the zone as soon as possible, while always putting safety first: we tell our people never to jeopardize their safety for an act of heroism.

It was also really heartwarming to see how quickly the DHL network responded to our requests for relief. On the Wednesday morning after the storm, we wrote up a wish-list of goods that our team members would need to operate properly amid the devastation: canned foods, water, generators, hygiene products, etc. We sent it to the DHL Express Center in Cincinnati, U.S.A, who got everything together and by 8pm were flying big volumes down to Puerto Rico for our teams and their family members. It was really amazing to see how efficiently those goods appeared and proved to me that when somebody in our network gets hit hard, others step up to the plate.

Right now, as I'm relaying this to you, Hurricane Maria is pummeling Puerto Rico, and so once again we will quickly mobilize - first assessing the safety of our people once the storm passes, then seeing how and how quickly we can get operations running again. And of course, helping however we can with what I'm sure will be badly needed donations. This is one of many times when I really appreciate working for such a strong, globally connected and responsive company.

as told to Tony Greenway

Help those affected by the Hurricanes. Choose where your donation goes.

United Nations
UNICEF's donation page to its Hurricane Irma emergency relief fund. Information on how to donate is presented in all languages to all countries.  

CDEMA (Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency)
Hurricanes Irma and Maria resulted in the loss of lives, significant damage to homes and critical infrastructure throughout the impacted islands in CDEMA's Participating States. 
Your donations will provide humanitarian support to the affected populations; purchase relief supplies; and support early recovery and rebuilding efforts in the impacted states.

Global Giving
All donations to this fund will support recovery and relief efforts for Hurricane Irma. Initially, the fund will help first responders meet survivors' immediate needs for food, fuel, clean water, hygiene products, and shelter. Once initial relief work is complete, this fund will transition to support longer-term recovery efforts run by local, vetted organizations responding to this disaster.

OxFam (Oxford Committee for Famine Relief) 
For more than 30 years, Oxfam has been active in the Caribbean region, where we work hand in hand with local partners to assist people in crisis, while helping affected communities raise their voices to ensure they get appropriate assistance. 100% of funds designated for Hurricane Irma will be used to support relief and recovery efforts for affected areas.


Published: September 2017