Remembering Hurricane Irma – five years later

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By Gemma Handy

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Everyone remembers where they were the night of Hurricane Irma. Many too will testify to those busy and pensive days in early September 2017 as we sat glued to TV screens, radios and social media, watching in trepidation as the ninth named storm of the season escalated with ferocious speed and rush to our small islands.

Within a day of developing off the Cape Verde Islands, Irma had already become a category three hurricane – and would soon become what was then the most powerful on record in the open Atlantic.

By the time it made landfall on our country, Irma’s wind speed exceeded a colossal – and terrifying – 185 miles per hour.

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The category five storm hit Barbuda with 185mph winds (Photos by Gemma Handy)

Antigua was largely spared his wrath. But no sooner had we on the mainland heaved a collective sigh of relief than our thoughts quickly turned to our little sister island.

The silence was deafening. And long.

Hours later, news slowly spread that Barbuda had been hit head-on by Irma, its low-lying landscape not matching what Prime Minister Gaston Browne would later describe as “like a bomb “.

That week, small and modest Barbuda made headlines around the world, with the vast majority of its homes and infrastructure devastated.

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The island’s world famous frigate bird sanctuary has been badly damaged (photo by Shayna Brody)

As today marks the fifth anniversary of the worst disaster in Barbuda’s history, there are undoubtedly many scars left.

A dozen residents who lost their homes are still living in tents, a family is still mourning the loss of a toddler, the island’s community center and council hall have yet to be rebuilt, and the hospital and primary school still need work.

The emotional toll is even heavier. Not only has the disaster exposed bitter divisions between factions on the two islands, but many Barbudians say highly controversial changes to the way land is governed on the sister island are eroding their cultural identity.

It took three full weeks before the Barbudans – evacuated en masse to avoid further tragedy from Hurricane Jose – were allowed to return home to begin the laborious task of cleaning up and salvaging what little they could.

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Barbudians have been evacuated en masse to avoid further tragedy from Hurricane Jose (Photo by Gemma Handy)

They also returned home with the backdrop of fear that life there would never be the same.

Many say these concerns have been realized. Barbuda is currently in the throes of a construction boom following legislative decisions overturning the centuries-old system of communal land ownership by residents.

There are clear benefits to the ongoing developments: the injection of hundreds of millions of US dollars and a flood of employment opportunities are not to be despised.

Prime Minister Browne told Observer Barbuda yesterday that he had ‘grown by leaps and bounds’ over the past five years.

“No one would have expected Barbuda to become one of the premier luxury islands in the Caribbean. It is poised to eclipse St. Barths due to the investment we have attracted,” he said. declared.

Examples he cited include the resort and residential program Peace, Love and Happiness, and the Nobu resort created by Hollywood actor Robert De Niro and Australian billionaire businessman James Packer.

“I am very happy with the progress made; we have rebuilt better,” continued the Prime Minister. “Ninety-five percent of people who have lost their homes have had it repaired or rebuilt. They got much better, climate-resilient houses for free,” he added, crediting his government with successfully applying for funding from the European Union and China.

Not everyone would agree.

Browne has been a controversial figure on the small island, notoriously calling Barbudians ‘uprooted fools’ when they protested what they described as ‘land grabbing’.

Barbuda MP Trevor Walker yesterday welcomed the completion of 104 EU-funded homes.

But he lamented the ostensible sidelining of ordinary Barbudians in the restoration of their island.

“We’ve come a long way, but one thing that stands out for me is that central government hasn’t had the kind of local involvement in the recovery decision-making process that it should have had,” he said. to Observe.

“It was our worst hurricane, but it wasn’t our first. Greater input from Barbuda Council and local residents would have allowed for more focus on priorities.

“It would have made a huge difference, compared to centralizing everything from Antigua and NODS [National Office of Disaster Services].”

Barbuda Council President Mackenzie Frank told the Observer that there is still a lot of work to be done.

While the progress made in primary and secondary schools is to be welcomed, “there also remains work to be done to completely restore them”.

“We are also not happy that work on the community center has not yet started five years after Irma. It’s the same with the boardroom; nothing has been done so we have to meet wherever we can for board meetings,” Frank explained.

“The hurricane storage facility, which is supposed to store all the items you need in the event of a storm, wasn’t even touched.

“And some rooms in the hospital aren’t full either. The Indian government has invested US$1 million in it and this part is wonderful; it is an air-conditioned unit with male and female rooms and children’s facilities.

“We would really like to thank the Government of India for the tremendous job they have done in restoring our health services.”

A number of residents were also never reconnected to the power grid, Frank added.

For many Barbudians, the psychological trauma of the early hours of September 6, 2017 will take the longest to heal.

Frank was at home a mile from Codrington, curled up with seven relatives, when Irma knocked.

“I remember the power of the wind and my roof bouncing up and down,” he said. “The double front door started trying to open under the pressure of the wind. Seven of us had to push on it and nail 2X4s on it.

“Then the galvanized started to go on the roof; it was scary. We just had to hope that we would get out of it. This storm was so powerful, different from previous ones like Hugo in 1989.

“This one was scary.”

Walker was also at home, with his wife and son.

“Irma was like nothing we had ever known; we wondered if we were going to survive or not,” he said.

“I tried to leave the house when the eye passed, but when I came out it was just littered with debris. We had no choice but to huddle until it was all over.

“Every time my now 12-year-old nephew hears the word ‘hurricane’, he becomes very quiet. He says he doesn’t want to hear about it.

“I guess there are quite a few people on the island with that feeling.”

Many Barbudians will testify to a somewhat more intangible consequence of Irma. While the government maintains that the massive infusion of investor funds will reap dividends in the island’s economic future – which many would agree – others lament what they see as the irreparable loss. of Barbuda yesterday.

The island has a different vibe, Frank said.

“And not just because of the damage Irma has caused and the dislocation people have suffered.

“About 350 to 360 people from Haiti, Mexico, other islands and even Antigua come daily and weekly, which has changed the general feeling,” he explained.

“Barbudians fear that their way of life will be crushed, their culture set aside and their land grabbed by people who do not enjoy the rights we have cultivated since 1684 and also 1834 after slavery.

“But I don’t look back anymore; I am a very forward-looking person. I’m not looking for a golden past, I’m looking for a golden future in which the people of Barbuda continue to dominate the way their culture is developed and the types of industries we create so that they can spend useful time on Earth, ” he added.

Walker agreed.

“We have recovered somewhat, but there is a feeling, given the trajectory of the central government, that we are losing our island.

“Barbudians are not just in control but are not part of the direction Barbuda is heading – and that is very scary.

“We believe that if this continues, in 10 to 15 years we will have a huge problem in terms of cultural heritage and way of life as a people.”

Still, Walker remains positive for the road ahead.

“I would say to the people of Barbuda: we have been through a lot and our lives have changed. But we are resilient people and I am optimistic about the future,” he said.

“We hope that through it all we hold it together; we just have to stay strong, support each other and we will get there eventually.

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