TORTOLA, B.V.I. — Every morning, Helen Penn wakes up to the clamor of power drills and hammers.
From her hillside home, she sees construction trucks clogging the streets below and tourists spilling out of cruise ships that have slowly begun to dock again on Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands.
But for all the bustle, a sense of normalcy remains elusive for Ms. Penn and many other residents a year after this Caribbean island was thrashed by Hurricane Irma, the most powerful storm on record to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and then Hurricane Maria just weeks later.
A white roof tarp still covers a section of the bright yellow house where Ms. Penn, 74, lives with her two children. The interior walls of the house are still gone. Without electricity, the family relies on small solar-powered lamps at night.
“I try my best to not get stressed about it,” Ms. Penn said. “I need to keep strong for my children.”
Even as Puerto Rico’s sluggish recovery from Hurricane Maria made headlines, the smaller territories and island-states in the region remained largely an afterthought. Now, with another hurricane season having started, islands like Tortola are still struggling to recover from the two Category 5 hurricanes last year, which razed large swaths of housing and crippled tourism, the economic lifeblood of the Caribbean.
Tourism accounts for about 35 percent of the economy and one in three jobs here.
The British Virgin Islands suffered more than $3.6 billion in damages, or almost four times its gross domestic product. This made it one of the worst hit and one of the slowest to restore normalcy among the British territories affected, which include Anguilla and Turks and Caicos, according to the British government.
Many here also see Irma and Maria as signs of what’s to come, and the rebuilding effort as an existential race against the clock — they know these vulnerable and isolated islands are at the forefront of climate change.
“We’re going to see more and more of these weather pattern events, whether they’re hurricanes or cyclones,” said Paul Bayly, the chief executive of the Recovery and Development Agency, which was created to oversee the territory’s long-term reconstruction.
The hurricanes severely damaged all major marinas and hotels of the British Virgin Islands, a vacation getaway 60 miles east of Puerto Rico known as a playground for the wealthy and the sailing capital of the world. The storms also destroyed 70 percent of homes on the islands, which have a population of about 30,000.
A year later, the greenery is back, but Tortola’s lush hills are still pocked with houses wreaked by Hurricane Irma’s 178 mph winds. Some are neglected vacation homes, local officials said. Others were abandoned by residents who fled the island. But many are the homes of those who have struggled to rebuild.
“It absolutely breaks my heart that there are still people living in houses that are very destroyed,” said Gov. Augustus Jaspert.
Across the street from the governor’s office in Road Town, the territory’s capital, Dorothy Nibbs spends her days under a mango tree, greeting passers-by and washing clothes by hand in a tub. Hurricane Irma ruined her laundry machines when it blew away the zinc roof and most of the walls of her house.
“Ms. Irma decided to take them, so she did,” Ms. Nibbs, 60, said.
She and her husband, Alvin Nibbs, have been living under a temporary tarp that British soldiers strung over the one remaining room of their house last year. The house gets uncomfortably hot without a proper roof and it has little more than two beds, a broken refrigerator and a stove.
“Terrible, terrible, terrible,” said Mr. Nibbs, 73, who worked all his life for the famed Peter Island Resort, which hasn’t opened since the hurricanes. “One tough year.”
Mr. Nibbs said the local government planned to rebuild his home as part of a $15 million loan and grant program aimed at helping vulnerable families. But he is unsure when that would be or how he would afford the repairs. Mr. Nibbs is paying off an old loan; Ms. Nibbs uses most of her Social Security payments to buy medicine.
Some British lawmakers have said that Britain’s initial response after Hurricane Irma was too slow and “lacked structure” compared to that of the French and Dutch in neighboring territories. But Mr. Jaspert, who was appointed governor by Queen Elizabeth, said that the British Royal marines who arrived 36 hours after the storm were instrumental in helping repair critical infrastructure and ensuring safety.
Still, the British Virgin Islands are expected to borrow heavily to finance the long-term recovery, which officials say will include greener, more resilient infrastructure.
Britain has committed to provide $13 million in grants and guarantee close to $400 million in loans to allow the local government to borrow at cheaper rates. Early estimates show the territory could need up to $700 million in loans, said Orlando Smith, the premier and top locally elected official.
“I’m feeling very optimistic,” said Mr. Smith. “The rebuild is in full force. We are ready to receive visitors.”
Construction was initially delayed by the difficulty of importing supplies like lumber and roofing from Florida and Puerto Rico, which were also rebuilding. Many residents waited months for new doors and windows. Others gave up altogether.
But construction has picked up and wooden scaffolds have begun to cover the facades of government buildings, businesses and hotels across the island.
The efforts are bearing fruit: Electricity was largely restored within six months. Roads are clear of debris. Coastlines are clean and iconic beach bars, like Foxy’s and the Soggy Dollar on Jost Van Dyke, the smallest of the four islands, have roared back to life.
Disney Cruise Line returned earlier this month and Norwegian Cruise Line is expected to follow later this year. The charter and sailing industry rebounded quickly after the storms, and close to 3,000 berths are available throughout the territory for motorized boats and sailboats, according to tourism officials.
The government expects about a half-million cruise passengers to visit this winter, around 30 percent fewer than usual. And more than 1,000 rooms — about one-third of the islands’ hotel inventory — are expected to be available for booking.
Yet some of the most popular resorts, like the Bitter End Yacht Club and Rosewood Little Dix Bay, on Virgin Gorda, the third-largest island, won’t reopen until late 2019. And more than 300 wrecked boats remain strewn on bays and beaches.
“We wish that these things would happen quickly and overnight, but the damage was so much,” Mark Vanterpool, the minister of communication and works, said from his temporary office above tourist shops on Tortola’s main cruise ship pier. “We are pleased that we have made good progress.”
Even so, the scars of the hurricane linger.
On the western part of Tortola, the customs office is still rubble, and elementary school students attended class in tents until recently. Repairs have not begun at the territory’s largest public high school. Its 1,280 students will resume classes this month on a half-day schedule in what used to be a home supplies store.
And a handful of people, like Travis Smith, still live in tents.
“It’s kind of a depressing state,” said Mr. Smith, 38, a sanitation worker who has been living in a donated white tent on the front lawn of his ruined house since December. He bathes with buckets of water, cooks in a fire pit and keeps his clothes in trash bags. Rats recently poked holes into his tent and the mosquitoes are a torment at night.
He had been in touch with the government about rebuilding his house, he said, but “there’s some kind of red tape holding it up.”
On the anniversary of Hurricane Irma’s landfall earlier this month, residents gathered in churches, government buildings and beach bars to mark the date.
At Nanny Cay — a complex with a hotel, marina and condominiums — the occasion brought together shipyard workers, hotel employees, boat owners and the community of American and European expats who live there.
Barefoot or wearing sandals, they played music, drank cold beers and reminisced about the chaotic days after the hurricane, when they worked together to re-establish water and electricity, salvage wrecked boats and fend off looters.
“Your life has been impacted by Irma,” Miles Sutherland-Pilch, the general manager, said in a speech. “To some there has been bigger and worse impact.”
Then Mr. Sutherland-Pilch proposed a minute of silence to remember the four people who died as a result of the hurricane and to honor the less fortunate who are still piecing their lives back together.
One by one everyone closed their eyes, lowered their heads and fell silent until only the sound of waves crashing on the shore filled the air.
Follow Luis Ferré-Sadurní on Twitter @luisferre.