After days of concern, I received a short What’s App message from a friend in Tortola. He said simply that the island had been flattened, that he and his wife had lost everything, but they were grateful to have each other and to be alive.
Several of the islands in the Dutch, French and English speaking Caribbean, have been devastated by #Irma, which struck the Caribbean at Category 4 strength. Then, taking the leisurely time of a tourist on summer holiday in the tropics, she slowly wended her considerable, powerful, awe-inspiring mass, and destructive tentacles of wind, water, storm surge, and frightening spectacle of thunder and lightning, toward Florida. Luckily for Floridians, she reached them at Category 3/4 strength. The islands of the Caribbean were not so lucky.
Up North, people do not pay too much attention to the storms moving across the Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea and the very severe damage these weather systems leave behind on the islands. As I wait with the rest of the world to grasp Irma’s full impact on Florida and become increasingly concerned about #Jose, following closely behind her, I started thinking about the #hurricanes that have struck the Caribbean in the last decade or so.
In the aftermath of hurricanes one sees the unbelievable destruction and hears harrowing stories, tales of barbarism, heroism or horror. Of all the hurricanes that hit the Caribbean in my lifetime, the one which sits in my memory is Ivan, the 2004 Category 5, which in five hours, demolished Grenada, taking with it over 90% of the island’s housing stock, infrastructure, the banana and nutmeg crops and 150% of GDP. It took years to build back and some properties were never reconstructed. Seeing the island after the storm, even in photographs, brought tears to the eyes, goose pimples and unshakeable sadness.
We look at photos or the news and forget that in the center of every storm is a human life and a personal story. One Grenadian taxi driver told me about his feeling of absolute helplessness as every generation of his family lost everything they owned, making it impossible for one family member to give shelter or help to the other. His story was not singular; it was common to families across the island. He told me of the many insurance claims that had been denied and how that increased the level of hardship and loss and about the way in which hurricanes cause jobs to disappear. Listening to recount his Ivan experience was heart wrenching.
Communications are still down across the worst affected islands over which Irma staked her destructive claim. As I understand it, Tortola has lost 95% of buildings including the airport, national hospital, most of its infrastructure and all vehicles on the island. This is also true of Barbuda and Sint Maarten. Haiti has been hit yet again. Turks and Caicos, the British Virgin Islands, the United States Virgin Islands, the Dutch Virgin Islands, St Kitts, Nevis, Puerto Rico, Antigua, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Anguilla and islands of the Bahamas, are all a disaster zone, or very close to one.
Based on the Grenada experience with Ivan, what does Irma’s passage and the aftermath of this hurricane season mean for island-countries already in serious financial crisis, where the debt to GDP ratio was already past 100%? Bear in mind, these islands are largely tourism dependent economies. Their infrastructure, agriculture, services, airports, buildings, road networks, telecommunications, hotels, restaurants, food supplies and stores are all gone. The ground is saturated and water reserves are compromised. There are few basic amenities available. The risk of vector borne diseases from the destruction of landfills, solid waste facilities and sewage systems, is now high.
Think of losing all the things we take for granted every day, the availability of food, warm meals, clean plates and cups, a change of underwear and clothing, deodorant, toothpaste, a dry place, furniture, our phones, the internet, fresh water, electricity and lighting, health care and medicine, feminine hygiene products, toilets, toilet paper, effective, efficient, disposal of the dead, access to ATMs and cash, tree cover, vegetation and animals, readily available petroleum products and fairly stable prices of consumer goods.
Now add to all of this, the loss of confidence, demoralization, the pain of losing all your possessions, all that was special to you such as your pets, identification, photographs, family heirlooms, the agony of losing your home which represents years of labor, the gut wrenching feeling of walking through rubble that used to be a road where properties and activity once were, the hardship of daily survival. Then add the fear as night comes and total blackness descends. Understand that without basic amenities, no fresh water, limited food and with batteries running low, panic and desperation set in, bringing out the worst and the best of human behavior. Countries facing this set of circumstances can descend into anarchy.
Imagine the fear of the present felt by children and the elderly, and the fear of the future and the daunting nature of the task of rebuilding which able-bodied adults now face. Think of what this level of devastation must mean to the society, economy and ecology/environment. Think, really think of what it means for an island to be decimated. On an island, residents cannot move to another state, as happens on large land masses, like the United Sates. There is nowhere to flee to.
Hurricanes are classified from Categories 1 through 5. Under 74 miles per hour (mph), the weather system is called a storm. Category 1 hurricanes have winds ranging from 75 – 96 mph. Category 2, 96 – 110 mph. Category 3, 111- 130, Category 4, 130 – 156 mph and systems with winds over 156 mph, are classified as Category 5 hurricanes. In terms of wind speed, Irma is the second most powerful hurricane ever recorded. Allen, with recorded winds speeds of up to 190 miles per hour, was the most powerful. However, the size of Irma, her slow passage, and her path over land, have combined to make her the most destructive hurricane in my lifetime.
The number and frequency of these destructive weather systems moving across the Atlantic are increasing, as is their intensity. The same is true in the Pacific. Similar to what is happening now with Irma and Jose, in 2004, Charley struck the same islands that had been struck by Bonnie, only 22 hours earlier. In 2007, Felix and Matthew followed each other across the Atlantic. It is not now uncommon for Caribbean islands to be hit by more than one storm or hurricane during a single hurricane season. This is why the island communities of the Caribbean and Pacific are insistent that climate change is not a hoax. It is real. Islands pay a high price for the climate-damaging, carbon-intensive lifestyles of the developed world.
In the late twentieth century, a number of powerful hurricanes moved through the Caribbean, laying some islands flat. It is amazing how quickly we forget and move on. These included Hurricanes David (1979), Allen (1980), Gilbert (1988) and Andrew (1992). Jamaican reggae artiste Lovindeer, memorialized Hurricane Gilbert in hilarious fashion, in a song called, “Wild Gilbert.” Look for it on YouTube.
I have compiled a list of the major hurricanes that hit the Caribbean in the last decade or so. The list is not comprehensive, for instance Omar, the 2008 Category 1, which caused $79 billion in damage is not in the table below. I’m just trying to give readers a snapshot of the reality of the Caribbean experience. Some of the hurricanes listed also affected North and South America. A number of them made it to the United States, Andrew (1994), Charley (2004), Katrina (2005), Ike (2008), Sandy (2012), Harvey (2017), Irma (2017). Some, such as Dean (1989), Bertha (1996), Irene (2011) and Sandy (2012), also went on to affect affect Canada. My focus here however, is the Caribbean.