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UN secretary-general surveys Irma's devastation in Barbuda

Jacqueline Charles, Miami Herald on

Published in Weather News

CODRINGTON, Barbuda -- A pink-colored popcorn maker stood in the middle of the living room floor, turned upside down, surrounded by scattered clothing, paper and other household knicknacks. Over to its left, a large refrigerator lay frozen in time, tilted on its side.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who had just passed a destroyed church and bank, was stunned. He walked over to the roofless house, with two of its walls missing, and stepped inside.

In silence, Guterres, the former chief of the United Nations refugee agency and a former Portuguese prime minister, looked right and left, trying to grasp the enormity of what had happened on this tiny Caribbean island. He turned around and walked to the next decimated structure.

"I've just witnessed a level of devastation that I've never seen in my life," Guterres said. He arrived in Antigua on Saturday and flew to Barbuda on a visit to the eastern Caribbean to survey the damage wrought by hurricanes Irma and Maria on Barbuda and Dominica, and to assess what more the United Nations can do to help the countries recover.

"I've been in areas torn by conflicts. I've been in my own country. I've seen earthquakes. I've seen storms. I've never seen such a high level of devastation like the one I've seen in Barbuda," he said.

Like others, Guterres had heard descriptions of what Hurricane Irma's destructive winds -- the storm was a Category 5 when it struck Sept. 6 -- had done to Barbuda. But neither words nor images had prepared him Saturday as he toured the island alongside Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne.

While he came to show solidarity with the Caribbean, Guterres also hopes to spur the international community into action. A humanitarian appeal on behalf of the Caribbean so far has received a "poor response." And equally important to him, Guterres said, is to show the link between "climate change and devastation."

"The beauty of the landscape, the unique character of the island and all of a sudden, I didn't see one single house standing. Every single house was destroyed," he said.

"A storm of this magnitude," he said of Irma, "can transform a paradise into hell."

A month after Irma, life in Barbuda is anything but normal. There is still no power, no phones and just one store is open. The country's military and police are present, helping to remove debris from main roads. Recently, the government, which had issued a mandatory evacuation order in the storm's wake, has allowed people to return to clean up their homes.

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