“Hurricane Irma was so big that the entire eye of the storm covered all [160km2] of Barbuda.”
So starts the chilling story by a Red Cross volunteer who rode out the Cat 5 storm at home on this island, that has been all but obliterated. Hurricane Irma was the first storm in recorded history that sustained a Cat 5 status for over 3 days.
“As the eye moved over the island” -he continues- “the wind died down and everything was calm. I opened the front door and saw a stream of people running towards my house. Theirs had collapsed,” recalls the volunteer adding that his house was one of the few still standing because he had used hurricane straps when building the roof.
“There were too many people to fit inside my house, so I gathered all of them and we went running looking for another place to shelter in.”
They found shelter in a tiny one-room clinic within the hospital compound where they stayed for the next few hours as the hurricane resumed its path of destruction.
“That window of 15-20 minutes when the eye of the storm was on top of us allowed us to regroup and probably saved us,” says Charles as he terms a “miracle” the fact that Irma only claimed one life –a small child who died as his family was trying to escape the storm.
I spoke to Charles and many others as part the preliminary assessment and designing of an emergency recovery project that is being undertaken by our World Bank Urban and Disaster Management team, with support from the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery. Charles is right that Irma didn’t claim too many lives.
But as we walked through what is left of Barbuda, we got a sense of what this community has been through: they did survive the hurricane but lost literally everything.
I had this image of a Sea Monster having picked up this island and huffed and puffed over it until everything had fallen apart. Once satisfied, it had moved on to destroy other islands.
A few houses and a couple of public buildings were left standing but the rest – electrical networks, water system, telecom cables, public buildings including a solitary hospital and two schools, and about 70 percent of the houses were all severely damaged or destroyed. And this doesn’t take into account the island’s vegetation, which has also literally been uprooted.
As we start working with the Government on planning for a medium to long-term recovery for Barbuda, there are a few lessons that can help in this effort:
- Building Resilient Infrastructure: Necessary utility networks of electricity, water and telecom staying functional can be a huge factor in helping communities recover faster from disasters. Underground electrical cabling helps protect vital infrastructure. While it is much more expensive compared to overhead electrical networks, over the longer term the economic and social benefits of having a reliable network can far outweigh the costs.
- Designing disaster Infrastructure for everyday use: The hospital in Barbuda was badly damaged. When reconstructing the hospital, it would be important to design the structure as a hurricane shelter for the community to take safe refuge in. A case in point is the community center in Barbuda. The structure was strong and survived the storm. However, the front door was blown away within the first hour and most of the large glass windows were shattered leaving community members looking for an alternative sheltering site in the middle of the storm. The same principle should apply for all public infrastructure being reconstructed on Barbuda
- Multi-hazard structures: Barbuda is also vulnerable to earthquakes and flooding. Structures constructed should be designed keeping in mind all these hazards and not only hurricanes
- Strengthening Impact Forecasting: Weather forecasting and modelling have improved tremendously over the past years and yet forecasting for small island states is a big challenge. Improving regional and national weather forecasting focusing on the “impact” of specific weather forecasts rather than generalized forecasts is the need of the hour.
- Communities as First Responders: Every community that is faced with a disaster end ups being the “first responder” in a disaster. Building the capacity of communities for being prepared, trained and organized goes a long way in helping communities to better respond to disasters.
These are some of the lessons drawn from our experience working in complex recovery efforts in other countries that we are bringing into our response, not only in Barbuda, but also across the rest of the region.