Thursday, September 21, 2017

On a devastating hurricane season in the Caribbean and migration futures


Hurricane season this year in the Caribbean is shaping up to be terrible. I had not quite realized how terrible, the imagery of devastation aside, until I learned that the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma had forced the evacuation of Barbuda, smaller of the two major islands which make up the country of Antigua and Barbuda. The island has been emptied of its population of some eighteen hundred people, breaking a centuries-long history of continuous habitation.

"The damage is complete," Ronald Sanders, the Antigua and Barbuda ambassador to the United States, told Public Radio International. "It's a humanitarian disaster."

"For the first time in 300 years, there's not a single living person on the island of Barbuda -- a civilization that has existed in that island for close to, over 300 years has now been extinguished."

[. . .]

When the storm hit, Antigua received minimal damage but the storm obliterated Barbuda's infrastructure, flattening structure after structure. At least one death was reported. Rescuers evacuated residents to Antigua and a state of emergency has been declared.

"We've tried to make living accommodations as good as humanly possible in these circumstances. Fortunately, we had planned ahead for this hurricane, and we had ordered supplies in from Miami and the United States before the hurricane hit," Sanders told PRI.

He told CNN about 1,700 people were evacuated from Barbuda to Antigua and said others went to Antigua on their own.

The living conditions aren't perfect and they can be "cramped," he said. But the evacuees are safe and the young people from Barbuda will be going to school in Antigua, for the time being.

"It's government facilities in which they are being located. We've opened some others. We've taken a nursing home for instance and converted that into accommodation and Antiguans have been very generous in opening their homes to some of the Barbudans, particularly those with young children," he told PRI.

The government believes that while some Barbudans might choose to stay in Antigua even after their island is rebuilt, many will want to go home.


NBC reports that apparently some hope revenues from online gambling sites based in the island nation could finance reconstruction.

Other islands have not faced such utter catastrophe, but are not far from there. As Jordyn Holman noted for Bloomberg, the US Virgin Islands' fragile tourism-based economy has been wrecked entirely by Irma. Without any way to sustain themselves, many inhabitants are already leaving.

Many local residents are giving up and getting out after losing everything to the category 5 storm, even as the local authorities in the U.S. territory say they are determined to rebuild the islands.

"I have no job, I have no house, I have no money," said Miriam Martinez, who works as a housekeeper and chef on St. John. "I can’t stay here."

The US Coast Guard arrived Tuesday to help transport evacuees and some tourists off the island. Many people are heading to San Juan, Puerto Rico, for medical care, or to reunite with their families and find out where they can go next. Martinez waited on the dock for hours to see her daughter, son and two grandchildren off as she planned to stay another month on the island. She couldn’t afford to leave herself.

Many of the islands’ 100,000 population have come from the U.S. and are now going back to their families on the mainland, said Ian Samuel, a volunteer and resident of St. John, who was helping evacuees this week. Some are comparing Irma to Hurricane Hugo in 1989, which cost the territory about $3.6 billion.

"Our main staple as an economy is tourism and we want folks from the wider U.S. community or the market to visit the U.S. Virgin Islands on a regular basis," the US Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp said. "We don’t want to be wiped off the list” of tourist destinations.

The New York Times reported similar levels of devastation on the island of St. Martin, divided between France and the Netherlands. The news from across the Caribbean has been grim, with reports coming in of thorough devastation from points as widely separated as Dominica and the Florida Keys. More recently, this evening I have learned that Puerto Rico just hit by Hurricane Maria, may not have electric power running for months.

Is the intensity of this hurricane season a consequence of climate change? Maybe. If it is, there's something of an irony in the fact that it is the islands of the Caribbean, the place that saw the first extension of imperialism beyond Europe--the extra-continental expansion that resulted in, eventually, our globalized industrial age--that it is the place that is starting to get hit most visibly by the negative environmental consequences of this globalized industrialism. The consequences for the peoples of the Caribbean will be severe. Where will they go? When will they be forced to go, in search of viable lives if not in an effort to save their lives?

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