One month ago hurricane Irma was pounding the northeast Caribbean with sustained winds of 180 mph and gusts in excess of 220 mph, carving a path of destruction from Barbuda to the Bahamas. As the islands affected slowly move from the early stages of recovery to full-fledged reconstruction the magnitude of the devastation brought about by the exceptional force of the winds, the surf, and the rain is becoming more evident—but so is the fact that this is an opportunity to modernize more than just the infrastructure in some of these territories.
Hurricane Irma first made landfall late in the evening on Tuesday September 5, when it hit Barbuda with winds so strong they knocked down all measuring instruments—recordings from an anemometer placed on a buoy near the coast peaked at 155 mph before going offline but the full force of the hurricane as it ravished the island could not be firmly established. Not that it really matters: the true scope of this storm could not be measured in miles or millibar.
Soon after Irma had cleared Antigua and Barbuda, Prime Minister Gaston Browne announced triumphantly that the island had passed with flying colors the test presented by the most powerful atmospheric system ever recorded in the basin. He’d spoken too soon. Antigua had indeed withstood the hurricane without major damage, but it had also been spared the brunt of the beating as the 30- to 35-miles eye of the freak storm passed directly over Barbuda, 40 miles north of Antigua.
With all telecommunications systems down, Mr Browne announced he would fly out to ascertain the damage on Barbuda as soon as the conditions allowed it. There was urgency in his message, but there was no alarm. It soon became obvious, however, that what was meant as a gesture of solidarity and support would turn into a reconnaissance flight over a disaster area: Barbuda had been flattened to the ground, and with hurricane Jose following quick on Irma’s footsteps a compulsory evacuation order was put in place. On the night of September 7 Barbuda remained uninhabited for the first time since 1666.
Only on Friday September 29 were the 1,800 people from Barbuda allowed back on their home soil. They’d been forced to spend twenty-two days in exile, while civil servants cleared the debris from the roads, restored telephone lines, fogged the island for pest control, and made the hospital operational. There’s still no power in Barbuda, no running water, but since over a week some Barbudans are back where they belong. In many ways September 29 2017 will remain in the annals of history as the date when Barbuda was re-settled, the day the process of recovery from hurricane Irma could start in earnest—a new dawn for the island, which will have to shine its light on every single aspect of ordinary life.
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Though worlds apart, St. Martin and Anguilla are inexorably joined, like Siamese twins, by the calamities that from time to time befall them. The benchmark, up to now, had always been hurricane Donna, a category 4 storm that in 1960 caused catastrophic damage to St. Martin and changed the history of Anguilla; both islands were badly hit by hurricane Luis in 1995, and in 1999 hurricane Lenny unexpectedly stalled its progress through the archipelago roughly in between them, dumping a tremendous amount of rain over the following two days. In 2014 Gonzalo, a category 4 hurricane that barely reached category 1 as it made its way from Antigua towards the northeast Caribbean, gathered momentum just as it was leaving St. Martin behind, treating locals to stronger winds and a lot more rain than had been predicted.
Unlike Gonzalo, Irma took no one by surprise. In French St. Martin the recently elected president of the colectivité, Daniel Gibbs, asked for assistance even before the storm hit. The central government responded by sending a team of 100 individuals, mainly healthcare professionals and soldiers, to set up mobile medical centers and safeguard peace in the aftermath of the hurricane. The Dutch government also sent assistance by boat, arrived from Aruba and Curaçao, though given the state of the sea in the advent of Irma landing the contingent proved a problem. Somehow, however, one gets the feeling that any level of preparedness would ultimately have been insufficient to face the mighty wreckage that was about to ensue.
Irma’s eye was so large that at approximately 7.30 am local time on Wednesday morning it encompassed Anguilla and St. Martin at the same time. By then both islands had been plunged into darkness for several hours. The electric company in Dutch Sint Maarten, GEBE, cut the service at approximately 5 am—that’s when most radio stations on the island went quiet, with the exception of Laser 101 which continued broadcasting intermittently.
Across the strait, Radio Anguilla covered the developing situation through the night, until its signal failed in the morning. There had been no power on Anguilla since 3 am, and one of the two local mobile phone providers, Digicel, lost its network before dawn. Miraculously, the other telecommunications company, FLOW, managed to keep connectivity throughout the passage of the storm, enabling young Radio Anguilla broadcaster Nisha Dupuis to continue reporting live on Periscope as the situation unfolded.
At the same time, a number of self-styled storm watchers kept posting on Facebook and other social media videos of the latest developments. There were palm trees bending over backwards and Jeep bonnets jerked open by the wind, there were hurricane shutters being blown and leaks encroaching on every corner of supposedly “safe” rooms, but the most striking scene came from a resident seeking shelter above his kitchen counter, witnessing a huge body of water tear through his front door and well up to alarmingly dangerous levels before it ripped open the back door and streamed out of the house. Through the darkest night in its recent history, Anguilla managed to stay wired, to stay in touch with the world, which might not have made things better, but at least they made them known.
Nothing, however, could have prepared Anguillans for the devastation they would witness once the all clear was given and people started venturing outside. Every light pole was down, every tree had been stripped of its leaves, cars were piled on top of each other, wooden houses reduced to rubble, as if hit squarely by tornado, even concrete structures—cracked, slanted, felled.
In St. Martin the situation was even worse, as the topography of the island makes it more vulnerable to flash flooding, especially at the foot of the hills. To further compound matters, widespread looting was reported on both the French and Dutch sides, adding a social element to a situation that already was extremely delicate. With a strict curfew in place and more than 400 Dutch marines temporarily stationed on St. Martin, though, the rule of law was soon restored.
Over the following days the ordinary list of celebrities visiting the region was replaced for a Who’s Who of political figures making the rounds: King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima of the Netherlands arrived in Sint Maarten as soon as the situation was deemed sufficiently safe, and President Macron was photographed assessing the damage and shaking hands with the injured at the hospital in French St. Martin. Meanwhile, on the other side of the channel it was Boris Johnson who paraded his scraggy blond locks on a brief visit to Anguilla, before continuing to the Virgin Islands. The eyes of the world were all pointing to the right place, just for the wrong reason.
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This was meant to be a year of celebration and remembrance in Anguilla, as the island commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 revolution, a haphazard, gutsy and altogether unlikely revolt that extirpated the territory out of an unwanted union with the state of St. Kitts and Nevis, and that ultimately paved the way for Anguilla to return to the British colonial fold. In some sense the story of the Anguilla Revolution begins with hurricane Donna, which in 1960 razed the island to the ground, much like Irma did fifty-seven years later. With one major difference: when Donna punished the region, destroying everything in its path, there was remarkably little to destroy in Anguilla. The roads were unpaved and electricity was an extravagance available only to those with a generator, there were no hospitals, the airport was a small building next to a dusty strip of dirt and tarmac (only the first few hundred yards were paved), and the full extent of the telephone network consisted of fourteen interconnected lines.
And yet, all this little was blown out of existence by hurricane Donna. Living in St. Martin at the time was Ronald Webster, the future leader of the revolution and the single most influential person in the history of Anguilla. Mr. Webster’s own rise from abject poverty to abundant wealth is itself the stuff of novels, and it meant that he was in a position to do something about the destitution he saw in Anguilla when he first returned after Donna. A fervently religious man, by his own admission Mr. Webster felt that Donna had been, to some extent, his fault for it had been God’s vehicle to deliver a message to him. That message was to get up and help not only his relatives and loved ones but in fact to permanently improve living conditions in his homeland. Mr. Webster knew from that moment that change was needed, and though he didn’t really know how to bring it about he was absolutely determined to achieve it. That determination, combined with the financial means to endorse it, proved key as Anguilla successfully undid an association that for almost 150 years had impaired its development.
This year’s commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the revolution has been as much about celebrating the glorious deeds of past heroes as it has been about exploring the ways in which the advancement experienced on the island over the last half century could be furthered in the coming years. That is what makes the timing of hurricane Irma so frighteningly eerie. As Anguillans have been revisiting and extolling the events that led, quite literally, to the forging of the nation, the island has suddenly been swept back to a condition many thought would never again apply to Anguilla. Therein lies the nuance of this situation: it’s not that Anguilla had never known so much desolation—it had, in fact, and more recently than most other places—but Anguillans had never lost so much, simply because they had never enjoyed so much prosperity either. The ability to bounce back from loss is not the same as the ability to make the most of a basic existence, but that is precisely the challenge Anguillans face.
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A month after the passage of hurricane Irma the situation in many of the islands remains critical. In Barbuda a state of emergency is still in place. In St. Martin the recovery process is somewhat more advanced, which is why the general curfew has been pushed back presumably one last time from 9 pm to midnight. Fifty percent of the country is back on the power grid, and running water has been restored to approximately sixty percent of its districts. Crucially, not only for St. Martin but for the islands around it, Princess Juliana Airport is scheduled to open to commercial flights on Tuesday October 10—on the seventh anniversary of the territory becoming a separate constituent country of the Kingdom of Netherlands. The concurrence isn’t serendipitous: in St. Martin, like in Anguilla and Barbuda, the sensation that they’re being entrusted with the rebirth of the nation is filled with more than just symbolic meaning.
In Anguilla, even the thought of normality is an ambition that lies far ahead in the distance. The immensity of the task at hand is best illustrated by the efforts of the local electric company, Anglec, to restore service: having worked 14-hour shifts for 25 consecutive days and even with the assistance of delegations from Barbados and St. Lucia, by the end of September Anglec had only managed to plug six percent of the island’s network back onto the grid. Six percent. Trademark properties—CuisinArt, Four Seasons, Malliouhana—have suffered significant damage and are not expected to reopen until April and in some cases even November 2018; others—Ce Blue, Zemi Beach, Great House, Carimar, The Place—might be able to complete repairs before December 2017, mitigating the effect of these closures; additionally, the island’s tourism industry has diversified considerably in the last decade, with private villas accounting for a substantial portion of the income. But even though Anguilla will be open for business ahead of the holiday season, it’s becoming increasingly clear that initial predictions suggesting it would take four to six months to bring the island back to where it was were not wildly off the mark.
Except for one thing: in Anguilla, in St. Martin, in Barbuda, in the rest of the islands hit by hurricane Irma and in those hit by hurricane Maria after that, things will never be what they were. For one, the geography of these places has been irreversibly transformed by the elements and, critically, so has been the psyche of the people living there. The landscape—so essential to the Caribbean—bears its wounds openly, like the skin bears a scar or a tattoo, and tells a story in every barren patch, in every restored building, and also in every space vacated by a toppled structure.
In Anguilla, for instance, the much-loved Pumphouse was shattered to pieces. Before becoming the island’s favorite nightlife venue, The Pumphouse was the operating room of the salt picking industry—an economic lifeline long before the arrival of tourism for a place where employment was desperately scarce. The absence generated by the space vacated by The Pumphouse is as glaring as if a skyscraper had suddenly materialized in the middle of the island, and though a new building is likely to sprout in the same location, the significance associated with the old one cannot be rescued from the rubble. The same is true of the famous strip of restaurants in Grand Case, French St. Martin, a charming lane of seaside establishments that over the years has earned a reputation as one of the best culinary experiences not only on the island but in the entire region. The surge produced by Irma quite literally gobbled up Grand Case’s seashore, leaving behind little more than memories. And yet, tragic as they are, these examples pale in comparison with the effects of Irma on Barbuda, where ninety-five percent of the buildings have suffered irreparable damage. In the Caribbean, perhaps more than anywhere else, the patterns shaping the landscape are a work in perpetual progress.
This is not to say the islands will never recover from the damage caused by hurricane Irma, or that they’ll never reach the levels of prosperity they enjoyed prior to September 2017—on the contrary, they might well exceed it because along with the pain and the loss and the overwhelming sense of perspective Irma has also brought a rare opportunity to reassess strategies, to recalibrate expectations and, in extreme cases, even to start from scratch.
In Anguilla that process is embodied by Chief Minister Victor Banks’ announcement that the island’s main ferry terminal, badly in need of an upgrade even before the hurricane, would be redeveloped, and that the airport’s runway would be expanded to 6,000 feet. The airport in particular has been a key element of the long-term plan of Anguilla since the nineties, and a thorn in the government’s side since the last expansion proved insufficient. Once completed, the renovated airport will have the capacity to service all but the very largest private jets in the market, an ambition that has preoccupied Anguillans for the best part of this century. Ultimately, both these projects are meant to correct shortcomings that for years have hampered the country’s potential as an upmarket destination without deviating from the model it has chosen to develop over the past three decades. In other words, they are small, if significant, steps toward a brighter future.
For weeks the focus on the islands has been on rescuing victims and accounting for losses, on restoring peace and distributing essentials, on ensuring public health, minimizing risk and reactivating the economy. Local governments will likely be grappling with the aftermath of Irma for many months to come, but slowly the conversation will shift from saving people’s lives to ensuring people’s livelihoods. For many this will seem like small consolation, and to be sure nothing could make the sort calamity the region has had to experience this fall worthwhile—but there was never a choice. The islands worst hit by this year’s hurricane season face a major task of reconstruction, yet implicit in such task are fundamental questions regarding the macroeconomic models and even the social contract prevalent in the different territories. It is a rare and envious privilege to be able to look back at the decisions of recent history and to have free rein to redress the mistakes of the past but that is exactly what each of the islands in questions gets in return for the tragedy they are facing. It hardly seems like a fair trade but the chance to modernize the blueprint for medium- and long-term development—the plan for the future—should be grasped with both hands.
Abridged version published by the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on October 21, 2017.