Someone once said that hurricanes are the terrorists in the Caribbean region. And as these annual storms become more and more powerful their devastating effects are destroying not only infrastructure, but unique and traditional ways of life. Today, this fact can be seen in the upending of life on the tiny island of Barbuda that was manhandled by Hurricane Irma last year. This Caribbean island – part of the CARICOM nation of Antigua and Barbuda – is now uninhabitable following the devastating storm, with rebuilding work ways too expensive for the local government.
When Antigua and Barbuda was hit, the Category 5 mega-hurricane made landfall and tore into the 62-square-mile island of Barbuda on the night of September 5 – 6, 2018. Almost all the island’s approximately 1,800 residents were evacuated to the neighboring Antigua, and those that remained on Barbuda lashed themselves to the roofs of their properties as winds rampaged through this tiny island at over 150 miles per hour. The final wind speed reading from was 155mph (250kmh) before the storm called it a day and moved on to other islands.
In the aftermath the hurricane left three people dead and about 95 per cent of all the buildings on the island either destroyed or significantly damaged. More than half of the island’s residents have been left homeless. And those who tempted fate and decided to ride out the storm were subsequently evacuated to Antigua where the storm’s damage was less catastrophic.
The full horror, trauma and impact of this powerful storm on such a small and defenseless island was mind boggling, the devastation complete. Today, for the first time in 300 years, there’s not a single living person on the island of Barbuda. A civilization that has existed on that island for over 300 years has now been completely extinguished. Hurricane Irma was easily the most brutal and ferocious storm in Barbuda’s history. In fact, the island is very lucky that only three people were killed, when compared with thousands in Puerto Rico. This was perhaps due to the fact that Prime Minister Gaston Browne issued a compulsory evacuation of the island before the storm struck.
Back then the prime minister sounded the ominous alarm about the prospects of a rapid rebuilding and reconstruction of Barbuda, when he said: “I have to tell you that we definitely cannot afford it from domestic resources. We are hoping that friendly governments and international partners will step up to the plate and assist us… This is a disaster. A national disaster of epic proportions and we really need external assistance. This is not a want. This is a need.”
Experts say that reconstruction is estimated to cost in the region of $200m, and could take several years. Famed Hollywood actor Robert De Niro, who was planning a luxury hotel on the island, is among those who have pledged to help rebuild. “As devastating as it is and as terrible as it is, it will come back,” the actor told CNN.
The first modern record of Barbuda was when Christopher Columbus landed on the island on his second voyage to the Americas in 1493. At the time it was populated with both Arawak and Carib Indians. It is possible that the exodus following Hurricane Irma is the first time the island has been uninhabited is far longer than 300 years.
Early Spanish communities were followed by French and eventually English settlements. In 1666, Barbuda became a British colony and in 1685, the island was leased to brothers Christopher and John Codrington, who founded the town of Codrington – the largest settlement on the island.
The brothers transported slaves to Barbuda to work on sugarcane plantations in Antigua, and as numbers of slaves grew, the island became a significant exporter of slaves in the region. Antigua and Barbuda together became a sovereign nation on 1 November 1981, and today remains part of the British Commonwealth.
Today, the only remaining inhabitants of Barbuda are the abandoned dogs and livestock left behind as islanders fled to escape the path of Hurricane Irma. From the pummeled remains of houses, shops and schools, to government offices, the police station and the Barbuda Anglican Church, Irma was ruthless in its destruction.
[Edited and compiled by Michael Derek Roberts]