When images of Hurricane Irma bearing down on the Caribbean first appeared, residents girded themselves for its impact. Long accustomed to heavy-slugging storms, they tied down outdoor items, evacuated low-lying areas, and closed heavy shutters against the winds. As usual, they stocked up on water, batteries, and food. Streets emptied as locals headed for shelters or barricaded themselves in their homes. The few remaining tourists hunkered down in hotels.
The unprecedented strength and scope of Irma, however, quickly overwhelmed even the best-prepared with relentless rains and ferocious winds, clocked at over 185 miles per hour. The massive destruction wrought will require an equally massive recovery effort. Early reports confirm that while loss of life was limited, damage is widespread and severe. The Leeward Islands—including Anguilla, St. Martin, and St. Barthélemy—are devastated. Likewise, Puerto Rico will require costly repairs, exacerbating its already precarious economic situation. Long-suffering Haiti, also battered by Irma, is still recovering from last year’s Hurricane Matthew. Irma is now roaring towards the Bahamas, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Florida.
Hardest hit is Barbuda. While Antigua, only 30 miles to the south, escaped relatively unscathed, Barbuda suffered catastrophic harm. Satellite photos show it as a tiny speck obscured by Irma’s enormous terrifying swirl, which reduced the landscape to rubble. After an initial inspection, Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, estimated nearly 90% of homes on the island are totally destroyed, with communications down, roads unpassable, and substantial flooding. Its airport, police station, and cell towers are all out of commission.
Throughout the northeast Caribbean, long-term international aid and private reinvestment will be needed for recovery of three essential sectors: infrastructure, tourism, and housing. Given the islands’ reliance on foreign revenues from visitors, the first two are vital to the regional economy. On Antigua and Barbuda, for example, over 70% of its GDP is attributable—directly or indirectly—to tourism. Serving thousands of visitors annually, mainly from the U.S. and Europe, the tourist industry provides the region’s main source of employment and has entailed substantial investments in hotels, transportation, cruise ship piers, and other amenities. Where these are damaged, rapid repairs are needed for local businesses to revive. More importantly, basic utilities providing clean water, reliable electricity, and sanitation must be restored and if necessary upgraded. An even greater challenge will be replacing the low-grade housing of many poorer residents, who had their sheet metal roofs shorn off and wooden frames splintered. Apart from the immediate costs of clean up and humanitarian aid needed for those left homeless, much of this housing stock will need to be rebuilt to withstand future hurricanes.
The Caribbean has a long record of hurricanes. The Leeward Islands have been particularly vulnerable due to their small sizes, low elevations, and limited resources. From the 17th century on, numerous eyewitness accounts attest to violent hurricanes that demolished sugar plantations, wrecked crops, and resulted in great loss of life for European settlers and enslaved Africans alike. Without modern storm tracking, moreover, they often had little advance notice. In the aftermath, islands often looked to the imperial powers of Europe and their North American trading partners to send food, timber, and other supplies.
With rising ocean surface temperatures precipitating more powerful hurricanes—Katrina, Sandy, Matthew, Harvey, and now Irma—their geographical range and capacity for destruction are increasingly vast and significantly more costly. Ominously, climate scientists generally concur that this trend toward the global intensification of super storms will likely continue. Even with ample advance warning, larger island populations, with numerous transient visitors and workers, are harder to shelter or evacuate. Moreover, the complex infrastructure of urban areas and tourist centers makes reconstruction more involved and expensive than in the past. Since hurricanes do not respect national borders, class differences, or immigration statuses, efforts to stem extreme weather events will require international collaboration.
Many Americans regard the Caribbean as one vast resort—a convenient place for barefoot weddings, romantic honeymoons, colorful cruise ship stops, or just an escape from winter blues. For millions of people, however, these vulnerable small islands are home. They are also among the U.S.’s closest neighbors, with historical ties dating back over 200 years. Many Americans of West Indian descent have deep roots there. At a time when the focus understandably may be on those impacted by Harvey and Irma closer to hand, we must not forget that the U.S. is still a wealthy and generous country that can afford to boost the resilience and recovery of the intrepid nations of the Caribbean. During times of trouble, good neighbors reflexively extend a helping hand to those in need.
Jennifer L. Anderson is an associate professor of history at Stony Brook University.