The devastated Caribbean: A humanitarian crisis

“Why is it, I wonder… Always, always it is at night when the fury of a hurricane makes itself felt. Perhaps it is because the spirit of the storm delights in the darkness, for there it can unleash its rage most potently.” ( Stephanie Osborn, Science fiction author)

“The coverage of Hurricane Irma is a conspiracy to trick people into believing in climate change and buying batteries.” (Radio host Rush Limbaugh)

“The reach of extreme weather is spreading and its punch is getting stronger due to climate change … human alteration of the atmosphere is having a major role in causing more costly and more frequent extreme weather events.” (Jeffrey Kargel, Dept of Hydrology & Atmospheric Sciences, U. of Arizona)

Every Barbadian grows up hearing the old verse: “June too soon, July stand by, August it must, September remember, October all over.” But analysis of tropical storms over 150 years is sobering. September is in fact peak month. So we must modify our thinking with a new verse: May it may, June not too soon, July stand by, August it must and September, October; November, remember, December almost all over.

Most Barbadians are aware of the two great hurricanes of 1780 and 1831, but in fact history records many more, of moderate severity or significant destruction. Schomburgk notes that the first hurricane he found recorded was on August 19, 1667 and a second on August 10, 1674. With the third, on August 31, 1675, “the country was almost laid waste”. This hurricane devastated the country, perhaps because the buildings were built with no experience of resisting hurricanes: “The houses in the Bay were blown down, and most churches met a similar fate.”

In October 1694 a hurricane drove on shore most of the ships in Carlisle Bay, and again in 1731. But the next “big one” was on October 10, 1780. John Poyer in his History of Barbados (1808) suffered “during this dismal night” and wrote: “The havoc … the howling of the tempest, the noise of descending torrents from clouds surcharged with rain; the incessant flashings of lightning; the roaring of the thunder; the continual crash of falling houses; the dismal groans of the wounded and the dying; the shriek of despair; the lamentations of woe; and the screams of women and children calling for help on those whose ears were now closed to the voice of complaint, formed an accumulation of sorrow and of terror too great for human fortitude, too vast for human conception.” At day-break it was seen that Bridgetown “was converted into a promiscuous mass of ruins. Not more than 30 houses and stores were left standing, and most of these had suffered considerable damage. The castle, forts and batteries, town hall and prison, were all demolished. The spacious church of St. Michael’s with its lofty steeple, was tumbled to the foundation in one confused heap of ruins.” Loss of life was some 4 500 souls, and damage more than a million pounds Stirling – almost two hundred million in today’s currency.

However, this hurricane caused devastation across the Caribbean, from Tobago in the South, through Barbados, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Martinique and other Lesser Antilles to Puerto Rico in the North, with more than 20 000 deaths. It’s been suggested it may have been the worst Caribbean hurricane ever.
Schomburgk (1848) lists several storms in the next 60 years, but only that of October 13, 1819 caused major damage, destroying the Constitution Bridge, causing serious flooding in Bridgetown, loss of many houses, and massive landslides between Hackleton’s Cliff and Foster Hall in St. Joseph.

The next devastation – comparable with that of 1780 – was on August 10, 1831. The Governor, Sir James Lyon, wrote to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in words of purple prose: “The noise of the wind, the peals of thunder and flashes of lightning (more like sheets of fire), the crash of walls, roofs and beams were all mixed in appalling confusion, and the whole house shook to its very foundations … whole families were buried in ruins … the barracks and hospitals of St. Ann’s are in ruin …” A correspondent wrote: “About 11 o’clock in the morning I ventured out and walked from the Careenage along the bay; not a house, not a wall, not a tree to be seen standing until we reached the Honourable Mr. Beckles’ dwelling (the Bay Mansion) … in one place the heads of the numberless dead were seen.” Some 1500 were killed, and damages estimated at two million pounds.

The devastation wrought by Irma and Maria to a dozen countries and hundreds of thousands of people is on a similar scale. And let’s not continue to joke with false pride that God is a Bajan. We are saved by good fortune, because we happen to be furthest East of the Antilles and far enough South to escape most hurricanes as they turn North. The events of these three weeks should make most people think hard about the increasing problems of climate change, and the strong evidence that man contributes and can help temper it – everyone except some eccentrics (euphemism) and radio comics like Rush Limbaugh, quoted above. The bigger the lie frequently repeated, the more people will believe it. However, there is no dispute that the warming of our seas increases frequency and severity of these devastating hurricanes. And we must play our part ever more aggressively in fighting climate change, and in preparing for a possible hurricane. This means taking building codes seriously.

Half of the Caribbean – from Dominica and Guadeloupe, Anguilla, Barbuda and the many Virgins, St. Martin, St. Barts and neighbours, and Puerto Rico to the Turks and Caicos – a dozen countries, half of CARICOM; British and American dependencies – are all devastated. Fortunately, loss of life has been minimal, compared to the great hurricanes of 1780 or 1831. However, the devastation is complete: most citizens have lost everything and it is an emergency on a scale vastly more horrific than anything seen before in the region. Rebuilding of these countries from scratch, with no income generated, no bulwark of massive capital or foreign exchange or technological facilities, is a multi-billion-dollar undertaking.

The Reverend Guy Hewitt, High Commissioner in London, has pointed out in another section of the Press that the rules of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) “exclude countries such as St. Kitts and Nevis and British Overseas Territories including Anguilla, British Virgin Islands and Turks and Caicos from receiving much-needed official development assistance from international aid budgets … (because) the gross national income per capita of these islands is too high for them to have access to aid budgets designed to relieve poverty”. However, everything has changed.

These countries are in ruin. The complete devastation of Barbuda, Anguilla and the Virgins by Irma and now Dominica and others by Maria has completely changed the picture, changed the goalposts and changed the reality to all but the purblind. These islands are in deadly crisis with severe poverty, looting, hunger, social collapse and multiple social ills looming – it is both an economic and a humanitarian crisis. They cannot return to previous status on their own, and their gross national income per capita falls to practically zero since Irma and Maria. It should be a no brainer that these paper rules of the OECD simply cannot apply in this crisis / emergency.

Reverend Hewitt, CARICOM and our Prime Ministers, other High Commissioners, and Baroness Scotland, Commonwealth Secretary General, should all be wasting not a moment in pointing this out loudly and clearly to the British government. Britain’s prompt response with aid, soldiers for peace-keeping and general help and a prompt decision on a few million dollars aid is commendable, but now is the time for major reparation, to rebuild these devastated countries – a token few million here and there is simply not going to cut it. A call for action, ladies and gentlemen with powerful voices.

Bouquet” To our splendid Davis Cup Team on their triumph over Venezuela. Tennis has never had much government support, perhaps because it doesn’t have the mass appeal of football, which is a shame because success at tennis requires supreme discipline and dedication in a highly competitive arena. Well done, guys.

Postscript: Sadly, the Barbados Photographic Society’s magnificent exhibition LENS SPEAK at the Pelican Art Gallery closed yesterday. Every photo deserves to have a home in a bank, an office or a home. Interested persons can contact the Pelican Gallery for information – you can view the photos in the catalogue and arrange purchases.

(Professor Fraser is Past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI and Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Clinical Pharmacology. Website:

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