If ever there was a time to rally ’round the West Indies, it’s now.
Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria aren’t what David Rudder had in mind when he penned the catchy calypso, but the message remains relevant.
Irma, the strongest recorded storm to come from the Atlantic, barrelled across the Caribbean earlier this month. It was Category 5 when it passed over Barbuda overnight on September 6, and the tiny island was all but obliterated. Less than two weeks later, Maria passed through the same region, with Dominica and Puerto Rico bearing the brunt of its impact.
Islands became mere toy boxes overturned by two cross children. It begged the question: How do you even begin picking up the pieces?
While the United States, France, United Kingdom and the Netherlands concentrated their relief efforts on the overseas territories they controlled, it was Antigua that came to twin island Barbuda’s aid, with most of its 1600 inhabitants evacuated to the former’s shores.
Wilmer Duran, an Antiguan, operates a tour boat service called Thriller Tours and, in true Dunkirk style, used his private speedboat to ferry several Barbudans across to safety. “Barbuda is our sister island, so I could not just sit there and see everything that’s happening, having a vessel that could be used to help,” Duran tells Wisden India.
After explaining the situation to his managing director in the UK, Duran was given the green light to help out as much as he could. His 40-foot, 900-horsepower boat is one of the fastest vessels in Antigua, only needing 45 minutes to reach Barbuda, and it was one of the first to reach the island once the weather cleared on September 7. Since then, he has been doing two trips every day after the National Office of Disaster and Services reached out to him to carry cargo and personnel. That includes the Red Cross, the Antigua and Barbuda Coast Guard, law enforcement and volunteers assisting with the clean-up process.
Before the Antigua and Barbuda Port Authority helped out with fuel costs and the government chartered his boat, Duran’s first two trips were self-funded — which wasn’t chump change, mind you, as he usually charges $US 2400 for a regular trip to Barbuda for 25 passengers (the maximum capacity with one skipper, two crew persons and one deckhand also onboard).
“If you have the resources, you shouldn’t just use it for income and profit,” he offers “I lived in Barbuda for a couple of years as property manager of Lighthouse Bay Resort. I know the people, I know the infrastructure, so I had a good idea before I got there of how bad the damage was. But when I got there, it was unbelievable, ten times more than what I could imagine. Knowing a lot of the Barbudans, it really hit home.”
“Literally rubble” was what Barbuda’s Prime Minister Gaston Browne said the island had been reduced to, estimating that 95% of the buildings had been destroyed. The damage was visible even from space, with satellite photos capturing how flying salt spray and hurricane-force winds of up to 185 mph changed the lush landscape to barren brown.
“It brought tears to my eyes to see the magnitude of the damage to the infrastructure,” explains Duran. “It’s a very small island in terms of concentration of where the buildings are so you can actually walk through the entire town. There were lamp posts broken down to two or three pieces. Every electrical wire is on the ground. There are dead animals everywhere. There are puddles of water everywhere that are stagnant. I would pass five houses and three of them had disappeared. Maybe one was still standing and the other was in between. But there were houses and buildings that were completely wiped out from the foundation, you couldn’t see anything.”
Despite the property damage, there was only one human casualty in Barbuda: a two-year-old infant. It prompted a few, from the outside looking in, to wonder whether things were not as bad as they could have been. “I saw my friend’s house where the roof blew off, the doors blew off, the windows blew off,” he recalls. “When they eye passed they were able to run across the road to another building that had a little concrete roof. We should be thankful that the eye passed right over Barbuda. If the eye had passed a little north or a little west or a little east, they wouldn’t have had those few minutes to run to a safer shelter and there would’ve been a lot of deaths on that island.
“We are all thankful that lives were preserved, but you cannot look from outside and say ‘Oh, it’s not so bad because they only had one casualty.’ Yeah, there was one casualty, but they had an entire country wiped off the map. On top of that, there is contaminated water, dead animals, garbage in homes. There are dogs roaming around eating that garbage left over. It remains a very big health issue.”
The emotional toil of having no home to go back to at the end of the day can’t be understated either. It was why so many Barbudans were initially reluctant to leave the island. Duran remembers several arguing on the boat during the first evacuation and refusing to go. “I had to tell them ‘Listen. It makes no sense to stay on this island because there is nothing here. You don’t have water, you don’t have food, you don’t have electricity. Allow us to help you and take you to Antigua. Let everything settle down and then come back to the island to rebuild it.'”
They are coping with it slightly better now, with several Antiguans opening up their homes, and hearts, to them. “We have people who gave their houses and said, ‘Use my house, come live with me.’ Personally, I would love to bring everyone to my little two-bedroom home,” says Duran. “If everyone does a little bit, it goes a long way. That’s what we’re seeing now.”
Remarkably, the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in North Sound has opened its gates as well, and is now being used as a makeshift shelter. For a generation of older cricket fans, this was the stadium that lacked the old-world charm of the Antigua Recreation Ground, and whose reputation was sullied by the ten-ball farce of 2009. One leading Indian daily, during India’s tour of the Caribbean last year, went so far as to call it ‘a lifeless monument, symbolic of West Indies’s steep fall from grace’. Those labels may not stick any longer.
Denise Harris, the senior assistant secretary for human resources and accounting at the stadium and now shelter manager, explains to us that the visiting team’s dressing room is used as a male dorm and the home team’s dressing room is used as a single mother’s dorm. Smaller rooms, including the coach’s room, the physiotherapist’s room, the press room and the umpire’s room, are used to house at least two families. The press room, for example, can be used as a sleeping area for 15 people.
“Some brought some clothes, the majority came with nothing,” Harris points out. “We provide anything that they need: beds, blankets, pillows, food, hygiene products, everything.”
To facilitate a smooth-running operation, eight volunteers from a pool of 25 come in every day. Their responsibilities include kitchen duty, dry goods stores, information desk, donation desk, aside from interacting with the people and reading to the children. There’s also a medical station manned by a doctor and nurse, and the Red Cross checks in as well. If there is an emergency that they cannot handle there, then the patient is transferred to the local hospital.
On September 8, the stadium housed 18 evacuees, but that number increased to 192 by September 10. As of September 26, there are 152 present, 30 children between ages two and 17 among them.
While the immediate concern in the aftermath of a hurricane is making sure everyone has a roof over their heads, food on their plates and clothing on their backs, Harris makes mental health a priority too. What begins as symptoms that may not seem too serious, such as anxiety, sadness and difficulty in sleeping, can translate over time to panic attacks, depression, violence and substance abuse.
“A lot of people keep saying they want to go home, they’re just missing home,” she relates. “Some are still a bit despondent, trying to cope with what’s happened. But they’re taking it one day at a time, keeping themselves busy, spending time with each other and learning to interact with the community in Antigua. We provide entertainment for them on the weekend and sometimes in the evenings to keep their minds occupied, keep them happy and help them de-stress.”
The umbrella of entertainment includes magic shows, dance recitals, local soca artists coming in to perform, barbecues, and face-painting and therapy through art for the children. The children attended classes at the stadium as part of a UNICEF program, and are now enrolled in schools in Antigua. All of which ensures there is a calm not just before the storm, but after it too.
That the stadium that bears his name is doing its bit to help the Barbudans greatly pleases Sir Viv Richards. He was at home in Antigua when Irma and Maria hit, and says it was a nerve-wracking experience but is moved by the response of everyone in the region.
Adversity, it goes without saying, unites the Caribbeans like little else. During Sir Viv’s time, cricket was a way to hit back at colonial mindsets. Dismissive remarks about the Windies team, from “grovel” and “mediocre” to “short of brains”, and “worst Test match team … in more than 50 years”, have also played their part in galvanising the players over the years. Similarly, Irma and Maria have shown that Caribbean blood is thicker than water.
“In the Caribbean, there is no road route to any of the islands. There aren’t bridges. You get there either by sea or by air. So it’s amazing how we have rallied,” Sir Viv tells us.”Maybe it’s because I was much closer to home here in Antigua and Barbuda that I was able to see the love and compassion, the feeling that everyone was so close-knit.
“Folks who would have only their last shirt on their back would donate that. To me, that was ever so special. The response here in Antigua to our sisters and brothers in Barbuda, it was a million and one percent.”
Rather than mounting a hashtag campaign, as several celebrities tend to do these days, to #PrayForBarbuda, Sir Viv simply went to his wardrobe and grabbed shirts, pants, shoes, bags, whatever was in immaculate condition, and set off to the nearest donation centre. He did, however, make a thoughtful detour.
“I approached a famous book store here in Antigua called Best of Books,” recounts Sir Viv. “I wanted to do something for the kids that are going to be there and decided to donate some books. They would all be placed in a different environment to what they are accustomed to and during such incidents, people are very traumatised. I know they would be spending some time in Antigua before Barbuda could be restored, so this is one little way I thought I could help give some comfort to some of the kids affected.
“Going down to the centre where the folks from Barbuda were coming in and seeing the outpouring of generosity, it was beautiful. I’m just ever so proud to be an Antiguan and Barbudan. To borrow a cricket term, this is definitely one of our better innings from the Caribbean.”
A tour boat skipper.
A stadium-turned-shelter manager.
Three people from different walks of life rallying, along with countless other Antiguans, for a common cause. After all, little keys can open up mighty doors.