Saint Lucia sat like the tender fillet mignon of the archipelago while the northern Caribbean islands prepared for unbearable days (Florida for weeks) anticipating the unwanted arrival of Hurricane Irma and an ‘aftermath’ in the form of Hurricane Jose. While all of this was happening, Mexico got lashed by Hurricane Katia and lost 96 people to an 8.1 magnitude earthquake. But Hurricane Irma was the major highlight of every international news channel, website, conversation and social media.
Saint Lucia watched and prayed for our neighbouring islands because storms are something with which we are more familiar than we would like to be, but thankfully we were spared from this one.
As Prime Minister Chastanet suggested in his address in the House of Parliament on Tuesday, “What was very interesting was it’s the first time that we’ve had a hurricane that would have impacted the countries that would have probably been the ones to give us support.”
Hurricane Irma clocked maximum wind speeds of 185 mph and one of the lowest pressure indexes of 914 hPa (compared to the most intense Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded: Allen [190 mph] and Wilma [882 hPa]) while she diligently remained on the path of petite Caribbean islands.
For countries including Barbuda, Saint Martin/Sint Maarten, the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, Bahamas, and Turks and Caicos, it signified the end of all comfort and life as these islanders knew. Destruction rolled in with catastrophic wind and gusts that pummeled to the ground some of the most solid structures. Unceasing rainfall expanded rivers which swept away buildings from their foundations. Harbours known to weather hurricanes time after time, like that of Tortola, couldn’t handle the ferocity of the storm. The waves Irma induced were competitive with tsunami heights and in some places the oceans and beaches were literally, temporarily “sucked away” by the abnormally powerful hurricane.
Now that the storm has dissipated, Barbudans who experienced the full force of the hurricane, recount their experiences describing the animals killed by soaring debris and the terror faced while families huddled close in wardrobes, as their houses were being ripped to shreds by the howling wind around them.
Irma was deadly, taking with her (as of present count) at least 34 lives. The death toll is rising as Caribbean natives describe their once, almost utopian homeland, the perfect callaloo of golden sand, translucent seas, sun and smiles, as now “smelling of death” and others admit to being “unable to cope” with the aftermath of the storm.
Hurricane Irma triggered flashbacks for Saint Lucians who experienced in 1980, a Category 3 version of Hurricane Allen. One gentleman reminisced while he mimicked caterwauling winds and mentioned our familiar green, lush foliage instead looked charred to cinders exposing every hillside house. In his turn, a then hotel worker described boulders from the seaside being thrown onto the roads by incoming hurricane winds on his way home from the hotel, “Let’s say the hurricane was supposed to reach at 12, well by 8 o’clock everything that had to mash-up was already gone . . . All banana trees were lying flat on the ground.”
In 1987 the island was still recovering from Allen’s effects. So, it only pans out that in the event of Hurricane Irma, like a different Allen, the Prime Minister suggested, Saint Lucia would sympathize and be willing to help as we did with Grenada when it suffered from Hurricane Ivan.
Irma left 28-30,000 Caribbean nationals affected, some without food, homes, potable water or means to care for hygiene. Areas remain until now without power and wireless or telephone communication, and residents claim that if the right “help doesn’t come, more people will die”.
Reports say that 90% of all buildings were hurled down to rubble in the French-Dutch island of Saint Martin/Sint Maarten. In the midst of natural disaster, survivors on both sides of the island are experiencing issues of security, looting and breaching of the law whilst officials struggle to maintain order. The calamity worsened when the passage of Hurricane Jose delayed aid efforts. Barbuda was reported to have endured “total devastation” and described as “almost uninhabitable” and so all 1,800 residents were evacuated to the major part of the twin state, Antigua. Anguilla also reported that about 90% of buildings were damaged by Hurricane Irma. Communication is still unstable there; however, there are reports of over 100 prisoners roaming free in the British Overseas Territories due to a prison being blown apart by hurricane winds.
According to the Office of the Prime Minister, Saint Lucia has been sending aid, and has made offers to evacuate and house victims via the National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO), and has initiated free landing fees and 24 hour service at our airports. The Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) is also assisting affected Caribbean islands.
Some reports, like that of The Telegraph, cited a photograph of a British territory cabinet meeting’s notes for 12 September, 2017 which quoted, “We are working with St Lucia and BVI authorities to secure the transfer to St Lucia of 40 high-risk prisoners that have escaped in BVI.” However, that same day Prime Minister Chastanet announced in the House of Parliament, “The government of Saint Lucia has agreed, at the request of the British Government, to take in three prisoners that would be coming in from Turks and Caicos. I have consulted with the Commissioner of Police and Minister of Security as well as with the staff of Bordelais.” The prime minister used the opportunity to assure all that the nation’s security was not being put at risk.
Bordelais Director Verne Garde, acknowledging the PM’s statement, noted that upon his commencement of the post in February 2015, Bordelais housed 644 inmates, which is about 29% over official capacity. As of Friday last week the prison recorded 518 inmates (a number which varies weekly) and is prepared to accommodate those prisoners with which the British government needs assistance.
Many of the Caribbean islands affected are British, French, Dutch and United States territories. Destruction of airports and harbours plus the looming Hurricane Jose initially delayed response, but all the aforementioned governments have sent troops, supplies and funding to their respective territories.
Meanwhile UNICWF, which is currently aiding affected women and children, urges the international scope of governments to lend a helping hand. “We haven’t been able to raise the funds from other governments at the moment. This is where I do think we need a much bigger international response to the funding that’s needed,” said Khin-Sandi Lwin, leader of UNICEF’s response to the Caribbean. “At the moment we are operating on regular funds we have for our ongoing programmes. We put aside money – about $800,000 – to get our first response up, but it means our regular programmes into next year will be down. We do need that additional funding – about US$2.3m,” he confirmed to The Guardian.
Other Caribbean islands affected include Cuba and Puerto Rico. A number of verified crowd-funding initiatives have been posted online.
Anyone willing to donate can access these and other credible donation websites:
Antigua and Barbuda Red Cross
Virgin Unite BVI Community Support Appeal
Global Giving’s Hurricane Irma Relief Fund
British Red Cross
American Red Cross
Convoy of Hope
Save the Children
National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster