Surviving Irma: ‘We are Caribbean People, We are Strong”

Katherine Vallera

© Copyright 2018 by Katherine Vallera


Originally published by TravelPulse

Satallite photo of Hurricane Irma. (c)

Shock. Sadness. Sullenness. Anger. These are the words Antigua & Barbuda resident Shelaine Henry uses to describe the emotions people are experiencing in the wake of Hurricane Irma.  

Having generated more accumulated cyclone energy than all other hurricanes so far this season combined, Irma is the strongest storm to have hit this island nation in recorded history.

Shelaine was in Antigua with her mother when the mega-storm made landfall, while her cat wandered off and was nowhere to be found.

My home is located on the southwestern part of the island, on a hill inland, so I'm protected from the sea,” she recounts, “I left a small gap in my window to see what was happening outside.”

Shelaine expresses gratitude for the warnings they’d been given, allowing ample time for preparation.

Before the storm, she and her mother had boarded up windows, rid their yard of loose debris, disconnected their water tanks and filled buckets with water for bathing. They’d stocked up on nonperishable food items, batteries for lamps, and gas for their car. They’d wrapped important documents like passports, title deeds and birth certificates in plastic bags. Shelaine says they even had time to pick fruit and trim tree branches in preparation for Irma’s arrival.

Early advisories allow us to plot and make arrangements to secure our land, valuables, and lives,” explains Shelaine, “Preparation is [the] key. The days leading up to a hurricane are lovely; sunny skies, calm seas. Without advisories, we would have never thought something catastrophic was coming our way, and that would have led to more lives being lost."

It may sound negative,” she continues, “but it does help to plan for the worse.  It helps minimize damage. They advise, and we act accordingly.”

Preparations had been made at the VC International Airport, as well, where Shelaine works as an air traffic controller.

The feeling was calm,” she recalls, “They were just trying to get flights in and out before the storm hit. It's all a part of the emergency protocol.”

Antigua’s airport was closed on Tuesday and Wednesday, but it reopened yesterday and is receiving flights. The Barbuda airport, meanwhile, remains closed indefinitely.

From the time I heard Hurricane Irma had turned north, I knew then that Barbuda would bear the brunt of it," says Shelaine before describing how helicopters were dispatched yesterday to assess the damage, “We just want to make sure our Barbudan brothers and sisters are okay.”

Shelaine has many friends in Barbuda, but she has been unable to contact them since Tuesday. As a result of Thursday's hurricane, the lines of communication to Barbuda are still down.

Reaching them now is a problem,” Shelaine laments, adding that she did see a former classmate who’d lost her home in a news story, “She had to put her kids in the closet and brace it.”

Somehow, Shelaine’s cat found a way to survive the storm, too.

It returned home Friday morning, safe and sound.

Shelaine stayed at Antigua’s airport after her shift to talk with me while she charged her electronic devices. The electricity is out for most of the island, but the airport’s power has been fully restored.

I ask her how the aftermath of Hurricane Irma could impact tourism to Antigua & Barbuda.

I believe for Antigua, tourism will not be impacted too much,” she says, “[We] have not received much damage, so tourists can come back whenever they deem it possible. The season starts in October and by then, we should be up and running.

Barbuda’s airport, on the other hand, was completely demolished. Getting there now is not a possibility for tourists. It's best they give the island some time to clean up and recover. In Barbuda, [the recovery will take] much longer, as the damage was definitely more extensive and severe.

If infrastructure is damaged,” she adds, “it will have a huge impact on tourism.”

Based on the reports coming through the airport, Shelaine speculates that up to 98 percent of Barbuda’s infrastructure has been destroyed. This could mean a major blow to the economy considering tourism accounts for approximately 60 percent of the country’s GDP.

Shelaine reflects on how Hurricane Irma hit on the 22nd anniversary of Hurricane Louis. That category 4 storm ravaged Antigua in 1995, bringing tourism in the country to a standstill. It took months and cost millions of dollars to recover.

She [Hurricane Irma] is a monster,” Shelaine remarks, “Louis was a monster, too. How Barbuda looks now was how Antigua looked in ’95. There is a joke that she is following her ancestor. Sometimes, we make jokes to laugh and lighten the situation, but we know the threat is real…

We have to keep watch of Jose.”

Shelaine’s referring to a second hurricane known as Jose, which is currently barreling towards Antigua and Barbuda with potential for catastrophe. Shelaine tells me the government is attempting to evacuate fifteen hundred people from Barbuda in preparation, but they’re limited to watercraft since Barbuda’s airport was destroyed.

I ask Shelaine how Barbuda & Antigua can recover from all this misfortune.

By sticking together and uniting as we always do, helping each other and rebuilding together,” she proclaims, “This is not our first major hurricane, and it will not be our last. We are here - still standing - and we will do it again. Our resilience, our community, our smiles; we will band together and continue as always. We are Caribbean people; we are strong.”

I ask Shelaine what the international community can do to help the people of Barbuda & Antigua. She tells me donations to relief efforts are definitely appreciated and recommends using an app called Ticketing to make contributions.

Aside from donations, Shelaine emphasizes that the best way to help is by planning a vacation to Barbuda & Antigua (after they’ve rebuilt their infrastructure, of course).

Learn more about Barbuda & Antigua, its inhabitants, and visit,” she exclaims with delight, “It’s a wonderful place with beautiful people and sites to discover!”

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