As Hurricane Maria pounded the island of Dominica with 155 mph winds and heavy rains last week, the premier of the British Virgin Islands, Orlando Smith, fired off a text to a WhatsApp chat group of Eastern Caribbean leaders.
“The people of the BVI are in solidarity with the people of Dominica and will assist in any way we can,” Smith, still in the midst of his own hurricane recovery from Irma, wrote to Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit.
In Barbados, about 494 miles to the south, the head of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, Ronald Jackson, was placing search-and-rescue teams on standby in Antigua, Trinidad and Saint Lucia while readying engineers and communications specialists for deployment into Dominica. A Barbados Coast Guard cutter was being loaded with emergency relief supplies.
Jackson thought about what he saw unfolding: the islands rising to the challenge of responding to the second powerful hurricane in days. “Lord,” he wondered, “what is the reason for this particular test?”
While European countries and the United States have faced a wave of criticism over their handling of the response and relief efforts after Hurricane Irma battered their sandy tropical outposts in the eastern Caribbean, the 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM) regional grouping known as CARICOM is being noticed for its cooperation among governments.
“Everybody is pitching in,” said Colin Granderson, assistant secretary general of Caricom, which has had at least nine members or associated members affected by hurricanes Irma and Maria this month.
In an unusual show of solidarity and support, governments have stepped up to help, offering relief, refuge, police officers and even prisons to aid storm-ravaged nations. As of Tuesday, there were 150 relief workers in Dominica from across the Caribbean, including police and military contingents from Barbados, Grenada, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago. The officers and soldiers were deployed to prevent civil unrest amid reports of a prison break and looting.
Other military and aid workers have joined them, from Canada, France, the Netherlands, the U.S., Venezuela, Costa Rica and the United Nations. But it’s the Caribbean effort that is getting noticed both in and outside the region.
Maria hit Dominica as a Category 5 storm Sept. 18, leaving 27 dead before heading to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. By then, the Caribbean disaster teams run by Jackson were already stretched across four island-nations — Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, Antigua and Barbuda and the Turks and Caicos Islands — struck by Irma.
Irma had been an extremely powerful Category 5 storm 12 days earlier when it decimated the French-Dutch territory of St. Martin, hammered St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and thrashed parts of northern Haiti, southeastern Bahamas and Cuba before making landfall in the Florida Keys.
Despite its overextended resources, the Caribbean disaster agency managed to get the first boots on the ground in Dominica, and the first aerial footage of the idyllic island’s devastation.
“Every time we do this, it reminds me … we can do this,” said Jackson. “For me, it symbolizes and signals the ability of CARICOM to work together to really deliver some support for our brothers and sisters across the region.”
For others, the response shows that in a region separated by language and geography, culture remains a strong tie.
“Caribbean culture understands that when a cousin or godson is hurting down the street, everyone puts in their little bit to make a pot of food,” said Marlon Hill, a Jamaican-born Miami attorney, who with the help of The Miami Foundation, is spearheading the U.S. Caribbean Strong Relief Fund with other South Florida Caribbean leaders. “Today it’s Dominica, but tomorrow it can be Saint Lucia, next week it can be Barbados and next year it can be Grenada.”
Watching the impact from the U.S., Hill said, he’s reminded that many of the island governments didn’t have much to draw on even before the storms. “They already have limited resources themselves in respect to their countries. So to see them give what they can both in human and financial resources, is inspiring to us in the diaspora,” he said.
Last week, St Lucian Prime Minister Allen Chastanet spoke about storms at the annual gathering of world leaders in New York during the United Nations General Assembly. His own government, days earlier, had announced it would serve as a base for relief efforts into Dominica. Antigua and Barbuda, still recovering from Irma, also announced a $400,000 pledge.
“Even in our destitution, we open our hearts and means,” Chastanet said.
Dr Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines who canceled plans to go to New York to help coordinate the relief effort in the region, said while the disasters are of “Biblical proportions,” the response demonstrates that CARICOM and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, a sub-regional grouping of countries, are working.
“There is a remarkable outpouring of love and caring in these difficult times,” said Gonsalves, who is now housing his mother-in-law and two of her friends, all in their 90s, who had been living in Dominica at his country home in St. Vincent.
His own struggling nation, Gonsalves said, has spent about $200,000 on barges to deliver supplies to St. Martin, the British Virgin Islands — with a stop in St Lucia to pick up additional supplies from citizens there — and to Dominica. St Vincent has also offered to take in medical students who had been studying in Dominica.
He also said that a regional airline carrier, LIAT, which is suffering from the damage in countries it serves, has been ferrying storm survivors for free from the British Virgin Islands and St Martin to Antigua.
But whether the new spirit of cooperation will lead to deeper integration among Caribbean nations remains to be seen.
Anthony Bryan, a Caribbean expert now with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said that while the recent hurricanes represent a “common disaster” that has pulled nations together, he isn’t optimistic that it will lead to anything beyond the current functional cooperation among many countries on matters such as a common high school exit exam or health initiatives.
“I think we tend to come together when there are either disaster responses or security measures and to coordinate foreign policies,” Bryan said. “Regional integration has been the hope for many years, but it takes political will. … Functional cooperation has always existed. But to carry it further to political integration? Not in my lifetime.”
Still, Jackson, the head of the regional disaster response agency, remains hopeful.
“We have shown that it is possible,” he said.