“In tough situations, you either step up, or step out.”
In a seemingly impossible situation, film artist, producer and entrepreneur Britnie Turner chose to step into the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, tell the story of the incredible people of the BVI, how they are rebuilding and the hope that endures through it all.
Immediately following Hurricane Irma in 2017, Britnie travelled to the British Virgin Islands to try and find friends and loved ones as zero communication was available.
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“I wanted to be mad at someone because it looked like a bomb had gone off, but there was nobody to be mad at,” said Turner. “When the storm happened, I took an audit of my life and thought ‘What do I have that can help?’, and what I had was a media company.”
A small crew from her production company, Aerial Produced, was on a plane along with a handful of people from CNN in the first days following Hurricane Irma. Britnie and her team weathered Hurricane Maria in BVI. And the BVI Stronger story was born.
After creating a service group to help fix homes of elderly people while in school in North Carolina, Turner’s heart for philanthropy continued to evolve. She attended MorningStar University’s SpecialForces school, a leadership training program about surviving extreme situations. Several missions trips to Costa Rica solidified her life’s purpose that she wanted to serve and promote good throughout the world.
A need to fund this dream bore out a real estate career in Nashville. She began flipping houses after working for no pay for nearly a year while learning the business with real estate investors. In 2009, Aerial Development Group was created to revitalize urban neighbourhoods, and from that tree, many branches of Aerial have grown, including Aerial Produced.
“I created a media company to promote worthwhile causes, people and ideas and to be a force for good,” said Turner.
Her first thought for recovery help was the need to get people back to BVI to continue to bolster the tourism economy. Within the first 40 days after the hurricane, her media company put out a documentary, BVI Strong Story. Showcasing the devastation and the people whose very lives were at risk, the documentary was incredibly hopeful and served as a tool to show the world what had happened and how they could help.
Tourism is a pillar of the BVI economy, and part of Turner’s BVI Stronger project was to promote and encourage tourists to return to the BVI – and fast.
“I wanted to get people to keep coming back to BVI and realize that their vacation dollars were helping a country bounce back,” said Turner.
While visiting the islands, she asked people who lived through the storm what they wished they had known before enduring it. She watched some islands come back “online” more quickly than others and saw other people abandoning the territory. Turner was witnessing the recovery of the BVI in real time and was using her production company to tell the stories of the people here and to create a template for other communities that could see how recovery was possible.
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Some thought the UK’s hurricane response was slower than they wanted, but Turner felt that parts of the recovery were planned with intention and the aim to avoid corruption. And more powerful than that, the community pulled together more often than not to make things happen when, where and with whatever resources available.
One of the goals of the film series was to keep the story in front of people. By creating a docu-series that came out episodically on YouTube, the story of the BVI’s continued struggle and triumphant recovery could be shared quickly and on a large scale thanks to the internet.
“If the storms don’t stay in the headlines, if nobody continues to care and share it on film, then nobody will continue to care about it,” said Turner.
Even though dealing with obvious hurdles like lack of power, internet connectivity and simply navigating an island in shambles was difficult, Turner and her team found the filming process to have a magical quality.
“Every day we didn’t really know how we would get ahold of people, but somehow, we ended up meeting them [or running into them] and every day turned out way cooler, way more powerful, way more life-changing personally for me than I ever could have planned,” said Turner.
With the intention of sharing personal stories and watching the roadmap of recovery unfold, Turner’s hope was to show the world how the people of the BVI came together so that perhaps other disaster-affected communities could see not only what was possible, but that the BVI could be better and greener than before.
Some of the best stories were of people coming together.
“Overall right after the storm, they said it was almost like living in the world God created because there wasn’t colour, there wasn’t race, there was no gender, no religion. We were all equal for the first time because we all went through something so devastating that we cared for humanity,” remembered Turner.
Turner saw people who had the hurricane take absolutely everything from them step up and become leaders for their community, even while grieving their own losses. The film series brought the Aerial Produced team back to the territory many times over the course of the year, where they spent time on nearly every island, collecting stories and helping where they could.
“[The people of the BVI] are the most resilient people I’ve ever met in my life,” said Turner.
The BVI Stronger docu-series tackles a lot of issues with rebuilding a nation after a natural disaster and offers key actions and takeaways for how success is possible in the midst of devastation. Turner has been an example of what it means to actually step up when the going gets tough.
From people seeking shelter in cisterns, clutching their children and riding out the most powerful hurricane in Atlantic Ocean history to the long process of rebuilding this beautiful region and welcoming back residents and tourists, the BVI has emerged stronger than ever.