Reiner Wolfs, Managing Director for DHL Express in the Caribbean, talks about the resilience of his team, who stood strong despite the devastation caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

When Hurricane Irma – the most powerful Atlantic storm in 10 years – hit the Caribbean at Category 5 this September, the effect was devastating for many of the Leeward Islands, such as Dominica, the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and St. Maarten. Not one area on the islands escaped unscathed. Then, around two weeks later, Hurricane Maria arrived and caaused further wreckage – to the islands – and an estimated $90 billion worth of damage to Puerto Rico.

DHL Express has small teams operating in both St. Maarten and the BVI – 15 people and 11 people respectively – 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 Irma hit and it’s chilling to hear. The hurricane 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 whose home has survived. Where possible, children have been sent away to relatives or friends in unaffected locations so that everyone can concentrate on rebuilding. In Puerto Rico, more than 10,000 people had to move to shelters. How long will rebuilding 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. In St. Maarten, the cleanup efforts were visible hours after Irma, with trucks operating 24/7 to clear debris from the roads. The BVI also made an incredible effort with cleanup and getting basic services up and running, and from November the sailing community is welcome back as “volunteer tourists.” Things are moving slower in Puerto Rico, which is also a much larger island. Maria has left the island without electricity and, weeks after the storm, less than half of the population had access to clean drinking water.

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. 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.

The quick and efficient support we received from the DHL global network in terms of sending relief goods was heartwarming. I’ve also been so impressed with the resilience of our team in such terrible conditions. I was talking to Ivan, one of our employees, 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. Their “can-do” attitude has been inspiring. — As told to Tony Greenway

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Published: November 2017

Images: DHL