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Irma’s destructive visit


Like many other Vincentians, I had, over the past week, been totally transfixed by Irma’s path of destruction through the Leewards and other northern countries and then to Florida.I wondered what would have happened if it had paid us a visit. Are we prepared to deal with something of this magnitude? I hope the relevant authorities would have paid close attention to the challenges from a disaster as enormous as this and would have learnt the appropriate lessons. I have difficulty understanding those persons who are still denying climate change, refusing to believe that human activities are contributing to warming of the planet. There is also so much ignorance floating around. Rush Limbaugh, the American radio talk show host and conservative commentator, made fun of warnings about the approach of Irma. It was meant, he felt, to put climate change on the agenda. Furthermore, it was simply a ploy to sell bottled water and batteries. Fortunately, he didn’t believe his own talk and took shelter early. Early estimates of damage range from US$10 billion for the Caribbean to $60-90 for the US. 

Barbuda was declared ‘practically uninhabitable’ and residents have been evacuated to Antigua. Some of the overseas territories were hard hit, among them the BVI, Anguilla, the Turks and Caicos Islands, French and Dutch St Martin, the US Virgin Islands, particularly St John and St Thomas, and Puerto Rico. Some of those countries depend heavily on tourism and so there is great urgency in getting airports operational and repairing the damaged hotels and infrastructure.

The coverage of the hurricane as it moved through the US was truly amazing. Part of it, of course, had to do with competition among the cable networks and with individuals seeking to build their reputations. Despite the criticisms levelled at them, particularly that of putting themselves in danger, their coverage mattered to persons who vacated their places of abode and wanted to keep in touch with developments there. It would also have benefitted those with relatives in the affected areas. Additionally, the networks were able to communicate warnings and give updates.

The real test, however, will come with the recovery and rebuilding efforts. It is to be noted that while most Caribbean countries were waiting on outside help to start those efforts, Cuba immediately began to mobilize to put things in place. As is its custom, Cuba despatched a medical team to countries that had needs in that area.  The US has the resources to start putting things together, although there were complaints in their colonies about delays in coming to their assistance. It is pleasing to see efforts being made in other Caribbean countries to provide immediate assistance to those that had experienced the anger of Irma.

The response, as expected, has largely been to focus on immediate needs in terms of food, water, shelter, and medical infrastructure. The rebuilding of the countries’ physical infrastructure and communications and electricity networks will demand resources that cannot easily be supplied by the Caribbean countries. One expects that the French, Americans, British and Dutch would accept the responsibility of addressing needs in their colonies. There is fear, however, by some that once the immediate needs are supplied, there might be little urgency to address long-term rebuilding. I am pleased with the thinking of British entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin group, Richard Branson, who has a house on one of the BVI islands. He called for external assistance in setting up a Recovery plan that he likened to that provided for Europe after World War 2. Addressing the long-term needs is, undoubtedly, a massive undertaking and will demand that CARICOM start the process, while trying to attract external assistance.  They will have to be quickly off the mark before a crisis elsewhere shifts resources there.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian