The 2017 hurricane season dealt the Caribbean a severe blow. What are the diving and travel conditions like in the region, and how can you help it recover?

The 2017 hurricane season saw three hurricanes — Irma, Maria, and, to a lesser extent, Jose — decimate several Caribbean islands. The storms cost many lives and caused hundreds of billions of dollars in damage. Most Caribbean economies depend heavily on tourism, and reefs for scuba divers and snorkelers are a major attraction. With the peak Caribbean tourism season (November through April) underway, the hurricane-affected islands are rushing to get local tourism infrastructure up and running again.

Indeed, almost every Caribbean tourism office says the best way to help the islands recover is to book a vacation. That said, it’s important to get the facts before going. Some destinations are ready and eager to receive divers. Others are still in crisis mode, with ongoing power outages and other infrastructure challenges. Here’s your guide to where to go, and how to help even if you can’t.

Caribbean-wide

If you can’t visit or want to donate immediately, give directly to the Caribbean Tourism Recovery Fund, organized by Tourism Cares and the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association The fund will help restore attractions, facilities, equipment and systems, as well as assist affected tourism-industry professionals.

Global Giving’s Hurricane Irma Relief Fund supports recovery efforts run by local, vetted organizations across the Caribbean.

Anguilla

Flight and ferry operators from St. Martin recently restored service to the island. Many hotels and restaurants have also reopened, though some will remain closed well into 2018.

How to help:

The Anguilla tourism board has organized an “adopt a project” program for those who want to give time or money for a specific recovery program.

Antigua & Barbuda

By all accounts, Antigua escaped all but some cosmetic hurricane damage. Unfortunately, Hurricane Irma dealt its sister island of Barbuda, just 39 miles (63 km) to the north, a devastating blow. In the immediate aftermath, all 1,600 inhabitants left the island on an evacuation order that the government did not lift for 24 days. Even now, the majority of evacuees have not returned. Because of the devastation, it will take at least a year — if not longer — for the government and residents to restore Barbuda.

How to help:

Visit Antigua or donate to the Antigua & Barbuda Red Cross.

British Virgin Islands

Irma smashed through the BVI, leveling buildings and destroying more than three-quarters of moored boats — a catastrophe for this popular charter-sailing destination.

The return to normal life has been slow. Electricity and other forms of power are still unreliable, especially away from the main islands. Most hotels and guest houses won’t be ready to reopen until 2018. There are signs of recovery, however. Most roads are now passable, and there is food and water. Cruise ships have begun to return, and Sunsail and The Moorings, a popular charter business, reopened in early December.

How to help:

Richard Branson has begun a fund at Virgin Unite. 

Dominica

Hurricane Maria devastated Dominica, the mountainous jewel in the southeastern Caribbean. The storm damaged or destroyed roughly 85 percent of  the homes on the island. Roads washed away or were blocked with trees ripped from the rainforest.

Colin Piper, director of the Discover Dominica Authority, says any travel to Dominica right now would be “meaningful travel,” i.e. voluntourism. Opportunities, including reef cleanup projects, are listed on its website. Daily flights in to the airport have resumed, and most roads are free of debris. The biggest issue for visitors is finding a place to stay: Only 28 percent of the island’s 900 rooms are open, and some are housing aid workers.

As for diving, the two immediate issues are that most dive shops lost their jettie and the dive-site moorings washed away.

That said, the local tourism industry has a target date of January 1, 2018, to be ready to resume “normal” operations. Hotel rooms should be available, hiking trails should be open, and dive operations should resume. The local Carnival celebration (January 25 – February 14) will go on as planned.

How to help:

The Dominican government is coordinating all relief donations. Use of these funds is detailed on the website of Dominica’s Office of the Prime Minister. Additional details are available at the Dominica Relief website.

Discover Dominica has a dedicated website  with the latest travel updates and voluntourism opportunities. 

Puerto Rico and Vieques

Puerto Rico is a U.S. federal disaster zone. Hurricane Maria completely destroyed its power grid. Some of the island is still without power, and even the most wildly optimistic assessments estimate that full power won’t be restored until spring of 2018.

That said, major airports across the island are open again. Major roads are clear, and many hotels have begun accepting reservations. The western and southern part of the island, which were slightly less devastated, have recovered enough to receive guests. La Parguera, a town on the southwest coast popular with divers, never lost water and “only” suffered 20 days with no power. The owner of Paradise Scuba and Snorkeling Center reports the reefs along the wall are in excellent condition, though there is some damage closer to shore. He also reports that the bioluminescent bay survived the storms and continue to delight visitors. “And there’s no light pollution!” he says. Many hotels and dive shops are also open in Rincon, on the east coast.

How to help:

Book a visit. Check travel conditions here.

Local Guest, a sustainable-tourism organization, is coordinating tourist-volunteer efforts. To apply, scroll down to the “volunteer” button.

St. Martin and Sint Maarten

Hurricane Irma devastated both the French and Dutch sides of St. Martin/Sint Maarten. The aftermath was so severe that many residents volunteered to be relocated to Europe. Resorts canceled all reservations for this this year, and many may not reopen until late 2018.

Though recovery has been slow, Air France recently resumed flights from Europe, and the island received its first post-Irma cruise ships in early December.

How to help:

Donate to the Dutch Red Cross.

Turks & Caicos

“We got hit by both Irma and Maria, but we turned things around quickly,” says Pamela Ewing of Turks and Caicos Tourism. She visited the island in October and reports that damage was minimal, though the one-two punch destroyed the homes of some local residents as well the dock at Blue Haven, and stripped away most palm trees. Providenciales, the most populous island, reopened to tourists in October. South Caicos, the hardest hit, will start welcoming tourists again in mid-December.

In short, the islands are open for business and welcoming divers and other tourists.

How to help:

Book a visit or donate to the Red Cross to further assist recovery efforts.

U.S. Virgin Islands (St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix)

A few weeks after Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the U.S. Virgin Islands, Governor Kenneth Mapp sent a letter Congress that said, in part: “Power lines are strewn across our roads; utility poles snapped in half like matchsticks; boats lie sunken in the harbors; many thousands of our homes stand heavily damaged or destroyed and some of our major road systems are impassable.” St. Thomas and St. John suffered the most damage.

Two months later, electricity and cell-phone service are slowly returning, and the islands have begun a phased reopening of tourism activities. Cruise ships were first to return, followed by Delta and JetBlue resuming flights to St. Croix. Accommodation remains a minor obstacle, as many resorts are closed for the 2017-2018 season. Many of those that are open are housing relief workers.

There are no reports available about the condition of the reefs.

How to help:

Find information on how and what to donate to local recovery organizations, including All Hands Volunteers, Community Action Now!, My Brothers Workshop and Virgin Islands ASAP Disaster Relief at this link.

The Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands has set up a fund here.

Other, more-local options include the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development and St. John Community Foundation.

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