A year has passed since a trio of hurricanes—Harvey, Irma and Maria—pummeled parts of the United States and the Caribbean, leaving death and destruction and ravaging these areas with property damage skyrocketing into the hundreds of billions and leaving, in some cases, whole islands uninhabitable.
On the year anniversary of this horrible tragedy, how are the islands with arguably the most damage from these natural disasters faring in the rebuilding process? What are the barriers that are keeping recovery at bay? And what will it take to speed up the process so these island nations can start thriving again?
As part of our “Hurricane Trifecta” project, we talk with Barbuda Council member, Kendra Blake Beazer, about the political divide that’s stalling Barbuda’s infrastructure and medical recovery process after Hurricane Irma. We also talk with Kelly George, a disaster recovery consultant who is helping to oversee Puerto Rico’s rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Maria . And on St. Martin, resident Ralph Cantave tells us about surviving Hurricane Irma and why the tourist destination is struggling to regain its economic strength after the hurricane.
A Nation Divided in Barbuda
In a July 20 Facebook post, Kendra Blake Beazer posted this, “…It breaks my heart to see how divided our nation is after we have gone through so much…”
He is referring to Irma, the Category 5 hurricane that annihilated Barbuda on September 5 and 6, 2017.
Beazer was born and raised on Barbuda, one of the island nations that was left completely devastated. He was among the 1,600 residents ordered to evacuate the island by Barbuda’s prime minister, Gaston Browne. For months, he had been traveling back and forth from nearby Antigua to Barbuda. Now, Beazer is back home, trying to rebuild what he and others left behind.
At 24, he is the youngest member of the Barbuda Council—the island’s ruling party—elected on the Barbuda People’s Movement ticket. As chairman of agriculture, lands, fisheries and coastal protection, he, along with the council—which has returned operations back to Barbuda—has started a debris management program with the help of the United Nations Development Programme, an organization that helps disaster-stricken communities return to sustainable development. The council has also been involved with a number of other initiatives to try to get the nation back on the road to recovery, including lobbying for international support.
“The recovery effort has been painfully slow from the beginning,” Beazer tells me as we message each other over Facebook.
According to Beazer, approximately 20 percent of the homes in Barbuda have electricity. And the island’s only hospital is still under repair, partly because they are doing some much-needed upgrades. Right now, there is a doctor, emergency medical technicians, nurses and other staff working at a unit in the hospital, he says. But anyone with any kind of major illness would have to be airlifted to Antigua.
If he were to guess, Beazer estimates there are roughly around 800 to 900 of the 1,600 evacuees back on the island.
Back in November of last year, Beazer was interviewed for this article in The Guardian. He wasn’t shy about why he thought recovery efforts were going so slowly. Though lack of funds and resources have been part of the cause, Beazer admits that a lot of the problem is due to the “political landscape between the central and the local government and the lack of proper communication.”
As he explains to me, the central government is governed by the Antigua and Barbuda Labor Party, and the local government is governed by the Barbuda People’s Movement. “Two different political parties with different ideologies,” he tells me.
“For Barbuda to rebuild, and rebuild stronger and more resilient, every person must play their role. We need all hands on deck,” Beazer says.
Beazer has also voiced concern about construction of the large, new commercial airport that
has continued during Barbuda’s recovery efforts. The airport in question, is part of the Paradise Found resort deal that is being funded by Robert De Niro and James Parker. “The government has lost sight of what is considered priority,” Beazer says. “Efforts should be made to restore the necessary services first before constructing a new airport; the old airport is still without light, primary school is still not repaired, hospital is not completed, bank is still not opened and homes are still not repaired.”
According to The Daily Observer, construction has recently been halted, at least for now.
Where to Begin in Puerto Rico?
Kelly George, a disaster recovery consultant who specializes in large, natural hazard mitigation projects, says that this happens a lot in the rebuilding process. And every time, it’s complicated.
“Inevitably what happens afterward is you get an army of people, and a lot of them are people like me, that come in and say, based on my almost 20 years of experience, this is my recommendation,” George says during our phone conversation. “And a lot of times those recommendations are conflicting, because it all depends on where you’re coming from. I am not an engineer or an architect, That’s not what I do. I’m the money guy. My superpower in life is I will find you the money…and anytime somebody gives you money, there’s strings. It doesn’t matter where it comes from because nobody’s going to write you a blank check. It never happens. And so it gets complicated quick.”
George has been in Puerto Rico since October, just after the island was sideswiped by Irma, and then 10 days later, Maria slammed it with 155 mile an hour winds, leaving the U.S. territory completely crippled. According to George, all 68 hospitals went down, including the ones that had emergency power. The entire communication system went down. The electrical grid was destroyed. The water authority couldn’t pump water. “We have not even started permanent repairs,” she says. And that’s pretty indicative for most of the islands that were hit by either Irma and Maria down here.”
To add to the already dire situation there, officials from Puerto Rico have just recently reported, in a draft report to Congress asking for $139 billion in financial aid, that its death toll isn’t the original 64 people killed but an astounding 1,427.
George’s job in Puerto Rico is to advise on the best way to use public and private funds commissioned for rebuild so that recovery efforts are made as quickly and efficiently as possible. But just like Barbuda, it’s never that easy.
“When your ports are damaged, when your airstrips are damaged, those are deal breakers,” she explains. “Even in Puerto Rico, which is significantly bigger, every port was damaged, so it doesn’t matter that you have other states or other countries that are willing to help. Unless you can airlift it in, which is incredibly more expensive than barging it in, that’s not necessarily helpful. And to airlift in, you either have to have a landing strip or you have to have a clear zone for a helicopter to land all of these things.”
George explains that for Puerto Rico, and for many of the islands, the restoration and reconstruction of the power grid has driven a lot of the decisions. Because you have to have power placement before you decide if you’re going to repair and restore roadways. And then there’s what’s underneath the roadways, which is the fiber optics, the sewer, the water. Then you start building back the schools, the hospitals and the houses. But, until a decision has been made on where the grid is going, those decisions can’t be made.
“Louisiana had this exact same problem after Katrina. Louisiana’s only saving grace was that you can drive 50 miles north and get outside the Katrina impact zone. You can’t do that on the island,” George says. “I mean there’s nowhere to go.”
A Struggling Tourist Economy in St. Martin
Ralph Cantave didn’t evacuate St. Martin—which is under both French and Dutch control—when 90 percent of the buildings on the Dutch side were damaged and more than a dozen people were killed by Hurricane Irma. As he huddled with his neighbor, he could feel the walls of the house shake as the hurricane ripped through the island, eventually tearing the roof off. They spent most of the night after the winds calmed blocking water from entering the home.
Cantave, who is an author and former radio host, just got married and is now attending college at Florida A&M University because the university he was attending on St. Martin was shut down after Irma.
Going back and forth from school to St. Martin to help in cleanup efforts, Cantave, who spoke with me over Facebook, says, “I was feeling a bit of despair because I was really thinking, ‘how can we bounce back from all of this destruction and damage?’ Literally, the entire island was in ruins.”
And whatever wasn’t destroyed by the hurricane was done so by looting.
Cantrave considers himself lucky, because where he is on St. Martin, the water and electricity are back on. And by December, he says, most of his side of the island was cleared of any large debris. And the hospital is back up and running. But there are still a lot of people who are displaced.
But overall, he says, St. Martin is recovering relatively well, compared with Puerto Rico, Barbuda and the other islands affected by the hurricanes last year.
But just because St. Martin reconstruction efforts are going along smoother, doesn’t mean the island isn’t suffering in other areas, like its economy.
Lack of jobs seems to be the main obstacle for a full recovery. Since St. Martin is a tourist destination, the economy isn’t faring so well, since most of the restaurants and hotels are still shut down. The airport, however, is running, but on a very small scale, since much of it is still in need of repair. “We’ve put all our eggs in one basket and the basket of tourism took such a major blow that there is no other industry that we can really rely on for income,” says Cantrave. “And so, I think that that’s one thing going forward that is needed, is a diversified economy that when, god forbid, there’s another Irma, we won’t be set back on such a grand scale.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
As George points out, the allocation of money makes the process take even longer. And the money that’s received is never enough.
Puerto Rico is probably going to be about a $100 billion disaster when all is said and done, says George. “There’s a lot of money in play, a lot of money,” she tells me. “It’s not going to be enough. It never is.” And though there are a lot of people who think that the events of what happened a year ago couldn’t possibly happen again, George disagrees. “This is the shape of things to come.”
For Beazer, his hope is that, even though Barbuda’s politicians aren’t seeing eye-to-eye on the best path to the nation’s recovery, and neither are the churches, and families are being torn apart, that there is still hope. In the same Facebook post from July 20, he writes, “It starts with me and it starts with you. Let us join hands. Let us make our nation great again.”
Charles Moss is a freelance writer based in Chattanooga, Tennessee with bylines in The Atlantic, Slate, Washington Post, VICE, MOJO Magazine and other publications. He started off in the pop culture journalism in 2007 writing features on music and movies, eventually moving into a staff position as a comic book reviewer until 2011. He went on to become the weekly pop culture columnist and continues to write about all facets of pop culture, from comic books and music to literature and movies. The story is part of the Ark Republic’s inaugural major collaborative project, the Hurricane Trifiecta: One Year Later.