Island of Barbuda is now empty; 'The damage is complete'
Friday, September 15, 2017, 4:59 PM - Hurricane Irma swept through the Leeward Islands, and swept away with it more than 300 years of civilization.
"The damage is complete," Ronald Sanders, Antigua and Barbuda's Ambassador to the U.S, told PRI. "For the first time in 300 years, there's not a single living person on the island of Barbuda."
The roughly 1800 residents of the island have been evacuated to shelters in Antigua, the partner island of the Commonwealth nation, and are being housed in shelters there.
Then-category 5 Hurricane Irma made its first landfall when it slammed the island on September 6. At one point, the entire 160 square kilometre (62 square mile) island fit within Irma's massive eye.
"Hurricane Irma was a monster," Sanders said. "It was 378 miles (608 km) wide when it hit Barbuda. Winds [gusted] at 220 mph (354 km/h), hanging over Barbuda for several hours."
The storm was moving forward at only 24 km/h during the time it moved over Barbuda. An estimated 95 per cent of Barbuda's structures were damaged or destroyed by the storm, including the island's sole hospital, airport, and its schools.
Barbuda, turned brown after Irma's passage. The change may be due to foliage being destroyed by winds, or killed by a coating of sea salt spray. Image courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.
At present, the only residents of the island are the pets and livestock that were left behind, some of which are now turning feral.
An animal welfare agency has stepped in to take on the task of caring for the animals left behind. Zifforah Tyrell, an Antiguan-British goat farmer is spearheading an effort to provide food and care to the abandoned pets and livestock, in hopes of easing the worries of pet owners and farmers alike.
The Go Fund Me campaign Tyrell started raised more than $3,000 in the first few days; enough to buy supplies and convince the government to allow access to the island. Earlier this week, Antiguan and Barbudan Prime Minister Gaston Browne named the President of the islands' Humane Society, Karen Corbin, as coordinator for animal rescue operations.
Antigua escaped damage from the monster storm, allowing it to absorb Barbuda's population. Sanders said that pre-hurricane preparation, including importing supplies from the U.S., helped provide for the evacuees. However, the conditions are not ideal.
"The living conditions are not great," Sanders told PRI. "People have been forced into cramped living, sharing toilets. It's government facilities in which they're being located." A nursing home has also been converted to house displaced Barbudans.
Sanders calls the work ahead to restore the island "a mammoth task," adding, "Barbuda is not going to be rebuilt in a hurry, and when we do rebuild it, we're going to have to build it to massive hurricane standards."
Sanders told PRI the roughly estimated the cost to rebuild the island's infrastructure is US$200 million; a Canadian team that went into the island earlier this week is expected to provide more information. The GDP of Antigua is $1 billion per year, with the main source industry being tourism.
The ambassador didn't mince words when it came to calling for help from the international community, laying some of the blame for the island's predicament at the world's feet.
"What we have to insure now is that, when we rebuild, all of the buildings on the island can withstand hurricane forces of the kind and magnitude that we've seen, because we believe climate change is here to stay. It's a reality, despite all of the nay-sayers. We have now to be able to cope with it," Sanders told PRI. "We, unfortunately, who contribute less than naught-point-naught per cent of the pollution of the world's atmosphere, are the world's greatest victims."