This past week has brought about a lot of reflection for me. We’ve been inundated with broadcasts of how the monstrous Hurricane Irma ravaged the North Eastern Caribbean Islands (Leeward Islands). But what happens after the broadcast cycle ends? What happens when the story of devastation gets boring? For the nationals of islands affected by hurricanes, the terror doesn’t end after a week or two. Unfortunately, it takes years to get back to a state of normalcy. The impact of a hurricane on these tiny islands is deep-rooted and long lasting.
The Emotional Impact of a Hurricane
For most, living through a horrific hurricane is likely the most traumatizing event they will ever experience in life. Personally, I’ve never understood why we (as Caribbean nationals) don’t promote counselling for hurricane survivors. At 12yrs old I experienced Hurricane Georges direct hit on St.Kitts & Nevis, and 19 years later, I still feel the emotional effects. I get anxiety during really bad thunderstorms – the thought of a hurricane is petrifying to me. The effects have subsided as time has gone along, but it was exceptionally bad in the beginning.
We are taught to shrug off these feelings, but they are real and justified, and need to be addressed. The reality is, many hurricane survivors suffer from PTSD. It only makes sense. These people have been witness to their home being ripped to shreds right in-front of their eyes. I remember after my experiencing Hurricane Georges, being in total and utter shock for days. Not having an appetite for days. At 12 I was certain in that moment during the hurricane that I was going to die. I did not know how to process the sheer terror I had experienced that traumatic September night.
There are so many emotional layers to being devastated by a hurricane. There’s that first time you visit your damaged home. When the winds and the rain are gone, and the destruction and all that you’ve lost can really sink in. Coming to grips with the idea that you’ve lost everything you’ve worked for your entire life, is a hard pill to swallow. Having to explain to your children that all their worldly items are gone, and that life is going to change, is tremendously difficult. You’ve protected them their whole lives but you couldn’t protect them from this. There’s your first “tour” around the island and realizing you are not the only one, and that your entire island is utterly ravaged. You wonder how are we as a people going to get through this? How do you go back to normal, when you don’t even know what normal is anymore?
The Educational Impact of a Hurricane
We generally hear a lot of talk about the damage to home and businesses, but schools are hard hit as well. It typically takes weeks in the aftermath of a hurricane for damaged schools to “re-open” and even then, they generally aren’t fully operational. When I was 12 my junior high lost its roof and many of the windows. More than 50% of the school was unusable. It took several weeks for us to return, and when we did, we were working on a shift system. I had approximately 3.5hrs of school per day. One-half of the school attended class in the morning, while the other half attended in afternoon. Hundreds of displaced students making the best of a crummy situation.
I was in junior high so this didn’t make a HUGE impact on my education. But being behind several weeks and working on shift systems has a huge impact on the 4th and 5th form (junior and senior year students) who are prepping for regional standardized exams and/or university. Also, take into account that the schools also lose furniture, computer equipment, text books and other resources that the students require. So even with school being back in session, some classes don’t actually have the resources to function. The recovery of the education system takes several months, and if we are being honest, sometimes the entire year for things to go back to normal.
Hurricane Irma completely destroyed Barbuda’s lone secondary school. Anguilla’s lone secondary school also saw severe damage. In St. Martin all of the islands schools have been damaged or destroyed.
The Economic Impact of a Hurricane
For smaller Caribbean territories the main source of economic stimulus is via the tourism, and agriculture industries. When a hurricane strikes, these are the industries that are usually most impacted. Airports, seaports, hotels & resorts, beaches and more are destroyed. Crops are completely wiped out. These industries come to a complete standstill. When the larger segment of the population is employed by these industries it also translates to thousands of staff laid off for upwards of a year or more or businesses close never to be reopened.
In 1998 Jack Tar Village Resort, St.Kitts closed for approximately 8months after over $1million in damages suffered as a result of Hurricane Georges. In 2008 The Four Seasons Resort, Nevis had to close for 2years for renovations as a result of damage from Hurricane Omar.
The sad fact is, that many of the persons who just lost their homes and everything they own, now have the double effect of also losing their source of income. Homeless and jobless. How exactly do you “recover” when you’ve lost your entire livelihood? How do you “recover” when you have no income? How do you “recover” when the World has already forgotten your plight and moved on to the next thing?
Governments have to lean on not so ideal loans from the World Bank and IMF in an effort to offer assistance to their citizens and repair the island’s infrastructure. These loans are notorious for plummeting islands into further financial insecurity with interest rates that are nearly impossible to pay. Though not ideal, these islands typically have very few alternatives for recovery.
Not All Impact is Negative
While the majority the impact of a hurricane is negative. It is not all bad. After a hurricane, more so than ever, you see the citizens of a country band together for the greater good. Every body lends a helping hand. You see the veil between the poor and the rich drop significantly. You really see the camaraderie, and family values that is the core of Caribbean culture. This always makes me smile in the wake of a Hurricane…just how resilient, helpful and loving our people are. That sense of desire to overcome and make sure that everyone is okay.
I say all this to say, in North America, we see hurricanes on these small islands and never really quite comprehend just how deeply they are impacted. We through around buzz words like “Recover” and “Rebuild” but never truly understanding what it means, and that it doesn’t happen over night. It takes years. Some people never fully recover. If you have the privilege to be able to donate to an organization that will be assisting with Hurricane recovery efforts in the Caribbean please do so.