Months after Hurricane Irma blazed its destructive path through the Caribbean, the once vibrant community on the tiny island of Barbuda is still struggling to rebuild paradise lost.
Before the September storm, Barbuda was a forgotten Eden about the physical size of the District of Columbia. Its 1,700 inhabitants were family, literally. The descendants of African slaves brought centuries ago by the British, many islanders were related. The workdays were short and the lobster was sweet. There were no street addresses. Everyone went by their first names.
Irma’s category 5 winds damaged virtually 100 per cent of the island. In its aftermath, and as Hurricane Jose threatened to hit, the island was completely evacuated.
A few hundred Barbudans have since returned, seeking to rebuild. But the hurricane has ripped open old wounds in Antigua and Barbuda, a Caribbean nation of two very different islands where longstanding tensions have spilled over. Barbudans who have returned are furious at, and suspicious of, the national government in bigger, more developed Antigua, insisting it is dragging its feet on restoring electricity to homes and rebuilding schools. They smell a plot to deter Barbudans from going back, in order to sell out the island to developers. The effort by the Antigua government to construct a bigger, more fortified airport on Barbuda, they say, is proof.
But the government in Antigua insists the time has come for Barbuda to be dragged into the modern world, abandoning a throwback culture of collective land ownership in favour of modern property laws. If Barbudans own their own land and houses, they can, the government argues, take out loans to rebuild their properties without taxpayer assistance. They can also insure their homes against storms, just as residents do on Antigua.
In the balance is a cherished Caribbean lifestyle that Barbudans fear may never again be what it was before the wrath of Irma.
AN ISLAND RAVAGED
On Barbuda, the rebuilding effort after Hurricane Irma has a long way to go. Street debris has been cleared, but many houses remain in tatters. Some of the few hundred returnees are sleeping in tents outside the ruins of their homes.
But Wayde Burton, a local city councilor, has managed to reopen the only store on the island, Lil-Linc’s Supermarket. And a daily ferry is running between Barbuda and Antigua, leaving in the early morning and going back in the late afternoon. But it’s unreliable, residents say, and often crowded, making even getting to Barbuda a chore.
Shiraz Hopkins, a Barbuda farmer, fled to neighbouring Antigua during the island wide evacuation in September. Much of his livestock survived Irma. But in the storm’s aftermath, local pit bulls killed off many of his goats, sheep and turkeys. He returned to Barbuda in November, and he argues that the government has been too slow in restoring electricity and water and rebuilding the local primary school.
Many Barbudans have stayed in Antigua, finding jobs and building new lives. But he and other returnees are vowing to return.
“With God’s help, I will get back what I had and even more,” he said.
THE ‘DOG HOTEL’
In Irma’s wake, people were evacuated from Barbuda but animals mostly weren’t. It created a problem as abandoned dogs, formerly pets, formed hunting packs and preyed on sheep, goats and chickens. Some dogs were put down by animal control squads, but others are being housed in a makeshift kennel inside a damaged hotel.
On a December afternoon, 20 dogs were chained up at the “Dog Hotel”, living in what appeared to be poor conditions. That month, however, work was to begin on a new facility meant to serve as a long-term animal shelter.
One bone of contention between Barbudan returnees and the national government in Antigua is the reconstruction of the island’s airport. The government is moving ahead with plans for a bigger, more fortified facility that officials say will aid in the reconstruction effort and provide long-term economic benefits. But critics on Barbuda say the project is aimed at opening the long quiet island to larger-scale tourism, which many locals would be firmly against.
Faith has returned to Barbuda in the form of Bishop Nigel Henry, pastor at the local Pentecostal church, who is again holding services on the island. The church is attempting to aid local residents, providing food when possible and occasionally organizing transportation for Barbudans on Antigua to get back to their island when the ferry service isn’t available.
LIFE GOES ON, IN ANTIGUA
Most of the 1,700 Barbudans evacuated from the island in the aftermath of Irma have taken up residence on their sister island of Antigua, where life is radically different. Barbuda was slow-paced, without chain restaurants or major tourism. For them, Antigua is a leap into the modern world, with massive cruise ships, a faster pace of life and even a Burger King.