Broward County

After Irma, the silence out of Barbuda is frightening

Locals recover part of a dock in St. John’s, Antigua and Barbuda, after Hurricane Irma departed.
Locals recover part of a dock in St. John’s, Antigua and Barbuda, after Hurricane Irma departed. Associated Press

Florida resident Felicia Emard is still waiting to hear from many in her family, including her grandmother, who live in Barbuda.

“No one will answer,” says the Brevard County woman.

Others like Patricia Henry, Atlanta resident and president of the Atlanta Caribbean Carnival, knew something was wrong in the morning when they could not contact their family or friends.

“I was scared for my family members,” she said. “It reminded me of New Orleans.”

By that time, Barbuda had long lost connection with the outside world. The communication and power lines in this island of 1,600 people had succumbed almost instantly to a hurricane whose eye was bigger than the entire island.

The Antigua-based ABS radio and TV station made numerous futile attempts throughout the early hours of the day to reach people in Barbuda before finally switching to gospel music at 4 a.m. However, no one, not even Prime Minister Gaston Browne, expected the situation to be as bad as it now appears to be.

He had tweeted early Wednesday morning that they have been “spared the worst of Irma.”

Except the police station, there were no other reports of any damage being reported from Barbuda due to all communications being lost. This changed at 5 p.m. Wednesday when the prime minister and local media landed in Barbuda to assess the situation.

According to Philmore Mullin, director of the National Office of Disaster Services, the prime minister’s reaction upon landing was that this was “very very bad.”

The damage was clearly visible in the daylight. According to prime minister Browne, 90 percent of the physical infrastructure suffered some kind of damage. Some had roofs blown off while others lost doors and windows. There has been one confirmed fatality and some reported injuries.

It was “widespread destruction,” according to Maj. Alando Michael, operations officer at the National Office of Disaster Services.

Communication systems in Barbuda were still down late Wednesday. The only way to get in touch with the island is through one satellite phone that is being used by the government there, according to Elvis Murray-Watkins, director-general of the Antigua and Barbuda Red Cross Society. Even that phone can only receive calls but not send any.

The local Hanna Thomas Hospital is reported to have received damage, but it is unclear how much. Adequate refrigeration for storage of medications remains a crucial concern.

According to Murray-Watkins, because of the location of Barbuda, everything has to be shipped from Antigua to Barbuda, even the medical supplies.

“If anything gets damaged in Barbuda, we are frightened that that situation can escalate,” he says.

A cabinet meeting was convened at 7 p.m. to plan a rapid needs assessment for Thursday. The director of the National Office for Disaster Services, president of Red Cross Society for Antigua and Barbuda and others were present at the meeting that stretched late into the night. An assessment team is expected to leave from Antigua to Barbuda Thursday morning, carrying disaster relief experts, eight Red Cross members, and emergency relief supplies.

The supplies were supposed to have reached Barbuda before the hurricane but were not ready in time for the last ferry that left for Barbuda on Monday morning.

Based on what the initial team finds Thursday morning, more members will be dispatched as needed.

“We hope we are not too late,” said Murray-Watkins. ‘I’m afraid of what we will find tomorrow.”

Contact the writer at harikarayala2013@u.northwestern.edu

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