Ambassador Ronald Sanders has barely had a minute to catch his breath since Sept. 6, when Hurricane Irma slammed into his tiny country, the twin-island republic of Antigua and Barbuda, with 185 mph winds.
The Category 5 monster leveled every structure on Barbuda, a 62-square-mile island the same size as the District of Columbia. Authorities quickly transferred its entire population of 1,700 to the main island of Antigua, leaving Barbuda virtually uninhabited.
“For the first time in 300 years, there is not a living person on Barbuda,” Sanders told The Washington Diplomat late last month. “People have lived there for over three centuries. Everything they own is there, and so are their entire identities — and they’re anxious to get back. We are making a general appeal to all countries to recognize this is beyond Antigua alone.”
Antigua and Barbuda is one of more than a dozen Caribbean nations and territories devastated by a string of powerful hurricanes this year. First there was Harvey, which hit the eastern Caribbean before dumping Biblical rains on Houston. Shortly afterward, there was Irma, Jose and Maria, which walloped islands that had not even begun to recover from Irma. From the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba and Puerto Rico, to St. Maarten, Dominica, Guadeloupe and the U.S. Virgin Islands, storms of frightening size and intensity have ripped apart homes, shops, hotels and airports — upending the lives of millions of people and costing untold economic damages. The Caribbean is more dependent on travel and tourism for its GDP than any other region in the world. When tourists will come back to islands that have been completely obliterated is anyone’s guess at this point.
Irma alone killed more than 60 people, including 10 in Cuba and 42 in Florida; fatalities were also recorded in Anguilla, Barbuda, St. Maarten and the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. The storm leveled 90 percent of the buildings on some islands.
At press time, Hurricane Maria — a Category 4 storm packing winds of 160 mph — was pummeling Puerto Rico, knocking out the entire electrical grid and possibly plunging the island of 3.5 million inhabitants into darkness for months. Experts say it could take years to rebuild whole communities throughout the cash-strapped U.S. territory, which was already suffering the effects of Irma and a $70 billion external debt.
Earlier, Maria clobbered Dominica, killing at least 15 people and tearing the once-verdant island apart, with barely a single tree left untouched by the storm. Two years ago, Dominica suffered the wrath of Tropical Storm Erika, which lashed the island of 73,000 with heavy rains, mudslides and avalanches that left 31 people dead. At that time, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said Erika had set the island back 20 years in terms of development.
This time around, the world was transfixed as Skerrit posted increasingly frantic Facebook messages that Maria had blown off the roof of his official residence, describing the devastation as “mind-boggling.”
The challenge for Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda and other Caribbean islands will not only be rebuilding on a massive scale, but also keeping the world from forgetting about their plight, especially once hurricane season ends and the real clean-up work begins. It will take creativity, cajoling and a lot of pleading to sustain the world’s attention on these small islands amid a litany of other pressing crises, from North Korea to Syria’s ongoing civil war to political battles in Washington.
Sanders, who has represented Antigua and Barbuda in Washington for two years, estimated that it’ll cost $250 to $300 million to rebuild Barbuda — a staggering amount equivalent to more than a fifth of the country’s GDP of $1.2 billion.
Since Irma’s impact, he’s spoken before the Organization of American States, the Pan American Health Organization, the Inter-American Defense Board and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He’s also appeared on countless radio and TV programs to explain his country’s heartbreaking predicament.
“Barbuda is not just a natural disaster, it’s a humanitarian crisis,” he told us. “We will need help to rebuild. We’ve declared a state of emergency, but the Antiguan government has carried the brunt of this, although some countries have been particularly helpful in making donations.”
Sanders singled out one country, Venezuela, for praise. Despite food shortages and political chaos under the increasingly repressive rule of President Nicolás Maduro, the Venezuelan government managed to send in a team of 30 doctors aboard a military aircraft packed with humanitarian supplies. Antigua also got help from the 15-nation Caribbean Community (Caricom).
“It was gratefully welcomed, but Caricom’s resources are limited and they can’t help us with recovery,” he said.
In contrast, said Sanders, the U.S. government has donated $100,000 via the Red Cross — hardly enough to make a dent on a once-lush island whose electricity, water and road systems have been totally destroyed.
“Your own Congress is more concerned with domestic issues right now. To get them to focus on this is extremely difficult,” said Sanders, whose country doesn’t even have a resident U.S. ambassador; affairs are handled from the U.S. Embassy in Barbados.
The same frustration was echoed by the country’s prime minister, Gaston Browne, who for years has warned about the risks of climate change to small developing islands. “Just as Trump is helping other U.S. states, like Florida and Texas, just remember that there are some countries in the Caribbean that got damaged and the U.S. can do more,” he told Time magazine’s Tara John. “They ought to do more. You cannot be the biggest and most powerful country in the world and have small islands right on your doorstep on the so-called third border.”
Browne said he supports a call by British billionaire Richard Branson for a Marshall Plan to rebuild islands that were battered by the recent rash of hurricanes.
Sanders said his twin-island nation, where one island is now housing the entire population of both islands, needs all the help it can get.
“Antigua had an overnight increase in its population of 3 percent. I don’t know of any country that can cope with that,” Sanders told us. “We’ve got to provide medical services, find work for people and keep them in makeshift shelters, which we’re trying to make as accommodating as possible. But this all costs money.”
He added: “The structures that are left [in Barbuda] are not habitable and they’re dangerous to enter, plus there’s water infiltration, which could lead to diseases. We simply could not leave people there in those conditions.”
Some residents have even contemplated not returning to the deserted island, where dog carcasses lie exposed in the open air and every building was razed to the ground.
Asked how long it might take for Barbuda to recover, Sanders said “that depends on what level of recovery you’re talking about.”
“It’ll be some time before we can get electricity and water running again. We will have to make a decision about whether we restring wires on poles or bury it. Burying is extremely expensive,” he said. “We also have 500 schoolchildren that have to be integrated into our existing school system, which was already heavily taxed. Our schools are now on a shift system, with Antiguan schoolchildren in the morning and Barbuda schoolchildren in the afternoon. We need help.”
Raymond Joseph knows a thing or two about Caribbean natural disasters.
As Haiti’s ambassador to the United States for five years, he helped mobilize international humanitarian assistance following the massive January 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and leveled Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince.
Yet Haiti also suffers perennially from hurricanes and tropical storms. With close to 12 million people, it’s one of the most densely populated countries in the Caribbean, by far the poorest and, unfortunately, one of the most corrupt. According to Joseph, who resigned as ambassador in 2010 to run for president (he lost), Haiti’s parliament recently approved a budget in which 5 percent of expenditures, or about $107.8 million, go to 146 elected senators and deputies. By contrast, 4.3 percent of that same budget, or about $91.6 million, is allocated for basic health care for 12 million citizens.
Joseph, 86, said his country is woefully unprepared for the next hurricane — or even tropical storm.
“The reason Haiti suffers more than any other country is deforestation. Haiti is over 95 percent deforested, so whenever a hurricane hits, there is no protection. The other islands are protected more than Haiti, because most of them have kept their trees.”
To that end, Joseph has devoted much of his time in retirement to his charity, A Dollar a Tree for Haiti. The nonprofit has raised about $40,000 to plant some 50,000 trees in Haiti.
Antigua’s Sanders, meanwhile, says he’s absolutely convinced that climate change had something to do with Irma’s magnitude and fury.
“These hurricanes are now unpredictable,” he said. “They don’t know boundaries, borders, races or religions. They hit everything in sight, and all of this indicates that climate change has had an effect on the weather, heating up the water. As the hurricanes pass, they suck up the heat. We are caught in the eye of the storm, if you like. I don’t know what we would have done with the people of Barbuda if Antigua had been hit too.”
On nearby St. Maarten, the situation wasn’t much better. Widespread destruction and scenes of desperation, including looting, unfolded in the days after Irma tore through this tourism-dependent island, which is administered by both France and the Netherlands.
Henne Schuwer, the Dutch ambassador to the United States, said the 40,000 or so inhabitants on the island’s Dutch side are just as much a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands as are people living in Amsterdam or The Hague.
“I’m involved in liaison efforts with the Americans. They helped us very much in the immediate aftermath. They had assets in place which we didn’t have,” he said. “We now have to rebuild.”
Yet Schuwer said 90 percent of the houses on St. Maarten are damaged or destroyed. The last major hurricane to hit St. Maarten caused roughly €1 billion in damage, and that was 30 years ago. This one, he said, was worse.
“We must get communications and infrastructure going again,” he said. “The seaport is operating. Of course, all the cranes fell down, but everything else is operational. The airport is also operational but we don’t have any lights, so you cannot fly at night. And we still have no control tower because it was blown over. So we have a makeshift air traffic control system, which the Americans helped us set up.”
In the weeks since Irma, KLM has resumed direct flights to St. Maarten, and everybody who wanted to evacuate the island has now left.
But Schuwer, like Antigua’s Sanders, said St. Maarten’s bigger problem is long-term, and that it has a name: climate change, which scientists overwhelmingly agree is making natural disasters like Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria more catastrophic. Experts warn that people will be sitting ducks for the next disaster unless governments address larger, underlying issues. This includes building more climate-resilient cities in vulnerable areas through hurricane-resistant building codes, better drainage systems, higher seawalls and elevated infrastructure. It also means better planning to prevent the kind of unfettered urban sprawl over floodplains and wetlands that made Houston more vulnerable to Harvey. Finally, it means reducing the man-made greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are warming the planet and fueling more unpredictable and dangerous weather patterns.
“I think what is happening now is a warning for everybody. It’s not only Harvey and Irma, it’s a whole sequence of megastorms within a period of one or two months,” Schuwer said. “Everybody should start thinking if this is the pattern we’re going to have in the future.”
Schuwer said that the Netherlands, “like everybody else, was very disappointed to hear” that the Trump administration wanted to pull out of the Paris climate agreement — a decision Trump himself reiterated only days before Maria struck Dominica and Puerto Rico.
“We think this accord is worthwhile, but only possible if everybody agrees to it. If you have people who don’t play along, the whole agreement will unravel,” he said, adding that “you can’t deny that climate change is happening. We have to lay the groundwork now in order to make sure this never happens again.
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.