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.

But some, like Devon Warner, have come for good. He arrived Friday with his wife and 16-year-old daughter, the day before Guterres' visit. The roof on their home is gone but Warner, a fisherman, said that's OK -- he'll manage somehow. He has no plans to return to Antigua, which opened its doors to storm survivors from both Barbuda and Dominica, where Guterres plans to visit Sunday.

"As much as you're able to walk free and shop, you're not home," Warner said about Antigua, which he described as "like being in prison."

He had been living in the home of "a very nice lady" in Antigua but he didn't want to stay any longer.

"I'm home," he said, as he struggled to cover his sister's roof with a blue plastic tarp. "This is where I want to be. This is where I have to be. I can't do anything in Antigua."

Like others, Warner said he's frustrated by the slow pace of recovery and wonders how he will rebuild.

Guterres also wondered how long it would take before people could return to their lives. As he met with two residents, he peppered them with questions. Both men recounted how, during the storm, they had communicated with flashlights, and residents ran from house to house to stay alive.

Browne, the prime minister, noted that most of Barbuda's 1,800 residents are self-employed and had built their homes with supplies purchased with cash. Most did not have insurance, he told Guterres.

Rebuilding the island and making it resilient for the next storm, Browne pointed out, was just one of his government's many challenges as it struggles to help the island recover while also taking care of its residents until they can return to their homes. As a middle-income country, Antigua has had to borrow money at commercial rates and the storms are a financial setback. He hopes that having Guterres see the island himself will help make a difference.

"For us to take on hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild clearly will create another problem," Browne said. "It will worsen our debt ... so borrowing is not the solution."

The current crisis, he said, warrants some level of debt relief and needs the advocacy of someone like Guterres, who concluded his visit by asking nations to take a stronger stance on climate change.

"He had an opportunity to walk a good portion of Barbuda. I think he would have done three miles walking and would have observed first hand the extent of the devastation," Browne said. "He didn't need anyone to tell him. ... He came to his own conclusion that it was a transformation of paradise, literally, into hell."

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