The 2017 hurricane season left Barbados and its Caribbean neighbours with hair-raising lessons. Most striking perhaps is the fact that it’s no longer if a super storm will make landfall in our region, rather it’s when, where and whether or not we will be ready.
Nothing could have prepared the Caribbean for what experts have described as a “beastly”, “shocking”, “ferocious” hurricane season. Not even the early warnings from major forecasters from May of an above-average season with 14-19 storms and then an updated outlook in August, which alerted that the season had the potential to be extremely active with 16 named storms and eight hurricanes, hinted at terror the Caribbean could not escape.
Fortunately, Barbados was spared the direct impact of the super storms that raised hell in neighbouring Caribbean islands. However, the island received a strong reminder that preparedness is not to be played with when Tropical Storm Harvey called on August 18. St Peter suffered the wrath of the moving system which drenched the northern parish leaving homeowners in several communities, including Speighstown, Gills Terrace and Farm Road, trapped in their homes by heavy flooding and loads of mud.
Richard Cox, who rescued a Farm Road family of four from raging floodwaters was among scores who recounted his harrowing experience to Barbados TODAY.
“The water was pulling me so if I didn’t tie on myself, I would have gone whichever part the water was going and that is in the sea. I am happy that I am alive, but my main important thing was getting the family out of the house. That was my main thing and by the grace of God, He guided me through it,” he said.
In Christ Church, several houses in Providence and Parish Land could not withstand Harvey’s gusty winds. Several homeowners lost their roofs, windows and doors.
Parish Land resident Carol Ann Archer recalled that she was awakened by the cracking sound of thunder, and before she could properly assess the situation, her roof was missing and the sides of the house had collapsed.
“By the time I looked up, all I could see is the sky and it was quick, quick so . . . . Before you knew it everything was gone.”
Overall, the Department of Emergency Management (DEM) said it received 40 reports from residents across the island, which included house damage, flooding, fallen trees and power outages.
Twelve days later, a tropical wave rolled off the coast of Africa, developing into storm Irma and in record fashion on the night of September 6 it ballooned into a Category 5 storm and wiped out the island of Barbuda.
“Barbuda is literally a rubble,” a shocked prime minister Gaston Browne revealed to the world shortly after he was able to travel to the island.
“What I saw was heart-wrenching—absolutely devastating. I believe the extent of the destruction in Barbuda is unprecedented,” he added, while disclosing that 95 per cent of houses were destroyed.
An infant was killed during the monster hurricane, which packed winds of 185 miles-per-hour.
Barely able to emerge from the rubble to pick up the pieces, Barbuda was again the target of Hurricane Jose two days later, forcing prime minister Browne to evacuate the island of Barbuda. Jose passed without incident.
Life is yet to fully resume on the island. The Antigua government has estimated that it will take more than $100 million to rebuild Barbuda, home to an estimated 1, 600 people.
While the attention was fixed on ruined Barbuda, Irma’s deadly dance along the island chain led her to St Martin, St Barts and Anguilla.
On the Dutch side of the island of St Martin, officials reported that four people were killed and more than two thirds of homes were destroyed. In similar fashion, the French government told of nine deaths across Saint- Martin and St Barts.
French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said there was “ massive destruction” to the island estimated at $US1.44 billion.
The nearby British Overseas Territory of Anguilla also suffered extensive damage, with one person killed. Irma also lashed the British Virgin Islands (BVI), claiming five lives.
“We are a resilient people but this has shaken us to our core,” said premier of the BVI, Orlando Smith.
The United States Virgin Islands was not spared Irma’s wrath. Four people died as the hurricane wreaked its havoc.
The relentless system also struck Cuba, claiming ten lives and causing widespread flooding and damage to houses and infrastructure.
The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency faced its greatest test yet as it responded to the unfolding dilemma in multiple member states.
But the season was not yet over.
Irma’s devastating landfall in the region seemingly paved the way for a second Category 5 system, Hurricane Maria, to batter the Caribbean.
On September 18, Dominica, which was struggling to recover from Tropical Storm Erika some two years ago, battened down, but the system would spare no one, not even prime minister Roosevelt Skerrit.
As Maria struck, Skerrit gave a haunting account on Facebook: “We shall survive by the grace of God!” he first wrote. Moments later he sounded the alarm, “My roof is gone. I am at the complete mercy of the hurricane. House is flooding” and “Rough! Rough! Rough!,” before his communication was wiped out.
Daylight the next morning revealed “mind boggling” damage on the nature isle.
“In summary, the island has been devastated,” Hartley Henry, adviser to prime minister Skerrit first reported.
A day later, an emotional Skerrit broke down in tears as he appeared on ABS Television in his first interview after the hurricane, which left 27 dead and more than 50 people missing.
Dominica “is going to need all the help the world has to offer” he said.
“Every village in Dominica, every street, every cranny, every person in Dominica was impacted by the Hurricane.
“We have no running water now, we have no electricity, we have no power, we have very limited telecommunication services . . . private homes have been damaged, some beyond any form of repair, all flat on their faces. Many of our schools have been destroyed.”
Barbados immediately sprung into action taking the lead from CDEMA to provide relief for the thousands left homeless and dazed by the ferocious system.
As the island attempts to return to normalcy, which will take years and billions of dollars, Skerrit has been lobbying the international community to get serious about climate change that he blames for the onslaught of category 5 hurricane that pounded the region.
Mere days after the devastation, he addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York, demanding tough action from the world’s developed countries to help vulnerable small island states in the Caribbean weather the effects of the phenomenon.
“Before this century, no other generation had seen more than one category 5 hurricane in their lifetime,” he said. “In this century, this has happened twice. And notably it has happened in the space of just two weeks.”
“We as a country and as a region did not start this war against nature. We did not provoke it. The war has come to us,” he said. “While the big countries talk, the small island nations suffer. We need action and we need it now.”
The world is yet to give a clear response but in the meantime, donors have stepped up to help the Caribbean recover from what the United Nations estimates will require more than US$5 billion for Dominica, Barbuda and the British Virgin Islands alone.
At a donor’s conference organized by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the United Nations in November, $US1.35 billion in aid and more than $1 billion in loans and debt relief were made.
The hope is that these countries will not only build back new houses, critical offices, roads and other infrastructure, but that the region on whole will be ready for when the next big storm arrives.