The Caribbean island nation of Antigua and Barbuda was the first place hit this month by the monster storm Hurricane Irma. Prime Minister Gaston Browne and most of his compatriots rode out the storm on Antigua island – then heard the horror stories of those who lived through a worse strike on Barbuda island.
“This was a very horrendous situation in which many individuals felt they were going to die,” Browne told me from the capital, St. John’s. “One family had to use ropes to literally anchor themselves to prevent from being blown away by the winds.”
Miraculously, only one person died on Barbuda. But 95 percent of Barbuda’s buildings were destroyed.
“For the first time in 300 years,” Browne said, “Barbuda is uninhabited. The island has been totally evacuated.”
In years past, most Americans – even Floridians – wouldn’t have paid much attention to the hurricane woes of a small Caribbean locale. But last week in Miami, Antigua and Barbuda native Elliott Mason noticed something really different.
“I wore a shirt that says Antigua and Barbuda,” Mason recalls. “And someone said, ‘Look, that’s the country that got devastated.’ I’m like, wow, somebody actually recognized the name.”
Mason owns a computer tech firm here, NuAge PC. But he says it was the first time he’d ever heard a non-Caribbean person in the U.S. identify his country. He says it was also the first time he’d ever heard one of them express concern for the devastation a hurricane had caused in the Caribbean.
“This time around,” he says, “people were paying more attention to it.”
He’s got a point. Whether it’s folks on the streets or reporters on the networks – NBC’s Meet the Press aired an entire segment on the Caribbean over the weekend – Americans seem unusually interested in the Caribbean after Irma.
One reason, of course, is that the storm killed as many as 50 people there. And the U.N. estimates that from the Leeward Islands to Cuba Irma caused $10 billion in damage. But there may be another, less obvious factor:
“A perfect storm of dynamics and circumstances,” says Marlon Hill, a Jamaican-born Miami attorney and past president of the Caribbean Bar Association.
“I mean, the largest storm of record in the Atlantic.”
Hill says when Irma was rated the most powerful Atlantic hurricane on record before it hit the Caribbean, Americans sat up and noticed. And because Irma was also headed for Florida, they kept their eyes glued on the storm as it pounded one Caribbean island after another. In the process they got more familiar with obscure spots like the Turks and Caicos.
“Her track really connected all of us in the experience,” Hill says. “Florida and the Caribbean became one family with Irma.”
Hill and the Miami Foundation have leveraged that to create the Irma Caribbean Strong Relief Fund. Celebrity attention helps too. Many famous names – Johnny Depp, Kenny Chesney, Tim Duncan, Richard Branson…President Trump – all have Caribbean properties hammered by Irma.
Branson now wants an international “Marshall Plan” of aid for the region – and discussion about the hand of industrialized nations in global warming, which may be brewing stronger hurricanes.
All this has energized the committee organizing next month’s Miami Carnival. The annual celebration of Caribbean culture takes place Oct. 8 at the Miami-Dade County fairgrounds – and one of its big efforts now is raising funds for and awareness of the Caribbean emergency.
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St. Lucia native Joan Justin, the Carnival’s chairwoman, wants Americans to look at the Caribbean long-term too.
"I’m hoping that it continues,” says Justin, “helping the Caribbean continuously and not waiting for a tragedy to come.”
Justin especially wants Florida business to get more involved – if not out of neighborliness then because the Caribbean as a whole is Florida’s No. 5 trade partner, especially thanks to tourism and the cruise industry.
“It’s very difficult to get the businesses to help,” she says. “But we’re seeing more collaboration right now between the non-Caribbean and Caribbean people.”
Non-Caribbean-owned companies here like the Miami-based Traeger Brothers say it’s time. Traeger has supplied industrial and construction materials to the Caribbean since 1924 and is involved with its post-hurricane recovery.
“They’re part of our neighborhood,” says owner Howard Traeger. He believes Irma proves the U.S. should approach the entire Caribbean as a domestic entity in disasters – not just U.S. territories like the U.S. Virgin Islands, which were demolished by the storm.
“We should be there just like we do in Texas or Florida. We’re right there, we’re right on it,” says Traeger. “For us to help the people that are right around the corner who don’t have the resources – get some good karma out of that.”
The U.S. has another chance to improve that karma this week: Hurricane Maria is now roaring across the same Caribbean islands that Irma hit.