Atlantic hurricanes rarely leave the Caribbean unscathed. The basin is like a bowling alley for storms and the islands its pins. Hurricane Irma – which left at least 36 people dead in the Caribbean last week, including 10 in Cuba, before roaring into Florida on Sunday – was an outsize bowling ball, setting strength records as it crashed into the Leeward Islands on the basin’s eastern fringe.
Still, folks in the Caribbean say they’re feeling forgotten now that the Irma focus is on Florida and the U.S. – and voices like British billionaire Richard Branson, who has a private luxury islet in the British Virgin Islands, are calling on the international community to turn its attention there.
“They feel cut off from the world and wonder if the world is noticing,” says Elliott Mason, a Miami computer tech business owner and a native of the Caribbean island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, whose family survived Irma.
Antigua island was spared a direct hit by Irma, which entered the Caribbean as a monster Category 5 storm with wind speeds of up to 185 mph. But its sister island of Barbuda to the north was devastated. It took days, in fact, for Antigua and Barbuda government officials to restore communications with Barbuda. Damage there is estimated close to $100 million.
From there Irma slammed into the French/Dutch Island of St. Martin/St. Maarten, where residents described an even more frightening situation that left four dead. The same was true for the nearby island of Anguilla and especially the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands was heavily damaged.
Irma’s path fortunately took it off the north coasts of the larger islands of Puerto Rico and Hispaniola (home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti). Even so, those islands suffered heavy flooding – waves as high as 30 feet were recorded at Puerto Rico – and near-blanket power outages.
The nearby Turks and Caicos islands were also badly hit, as were the southern Bahamas. But Irma seemed to save its biggest Caribbean blow as a finale in Cuba, where last Friday and Saturday the storm made more significant landfall than first forecast.
Cuba’s northern coast was ravaged, especially the Camagüey archipelago and resort cities like Caibarién, and 10 deaths have so far been reported. It was a reminder that while Cuba has a reputation for strong disaster preparedness, the communist island’s threadbare economic situation has often left sub-par infrastructure and construction in Cuba’s provinces.
“The housing situation out in provinces like Camagüey is dire,” one Havana resident who asked not to be identified told WLRN by phone over the weekend. Havana itself experienced severe flooding, causing the evacuation of thousands of tourists there.
In the wake of Irma’s destruction, voices like Branson – whose private island, Necker, was also badly damaged – are urging what he calls a “Marshall Plan” for the Caribbean.
Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are U.S. territories but residents there fear the hurricane disasters in Texas and Florida will mean less recovery attention and resources from agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). European countries like France and Britain are also being asked to channel more help to islands like St. Martin. (French President Emmanuel Macron said his government would raise a special relief package.)
Aid organizations like the Red Cross are reportedly finding that cruise ships – which are like island-to-island buses in the Caribbean – are an effective means of getting desperately needed relief supplies like water and building materials into the basin.