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After Irma, Barbuda isn't ready for evacuees' return

Ann M. Simmons, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

CODRINGTON, Barbuda -- It was a grim homecoming.

Crumpled sheet metal, shattered glass, snapped wooden planks, clothing and remnants of refrigerators, stoves and flat-screen televisions were strewn where a village bustled the day before Hurricane Irma visited this tiny Caribbean island in early September.

Days after Irma left, another hurricane seemed poised to strike Barbuda, and all 1,800 people were ordered to evacuate to neighboring Antigua. The second storm missed. But a month later, residents were trickling back to see what they could salvage.

"When I look at it, all I can say is that we're lucky to be alive," said 53-year-old Devon Christian, who lost one of his two houses as well as his job. The storm decimated the Coco Point Lodge, the luxury resort where he tended bar for more than three decades.

He said he was determined to rebuild his life there: "This is my home, and that's where I want to be."

It's the predominant sentiment among the people of Barbuda, the vast majority of whom remain on Antigua, 35 miles to the south. But the damage is so extensive that officials are dissuading the displaced from moving back anytime soon -- leaving them largely dependent on the generosity of their hosts.

The two islands, both former British colonies, were granted independence in 1981 as a single country known as Antigua and Barbuda. But it is unclear how long the goodwill of the 93,000 residents of Antigua will last. The Barbudans are already straining the health, education and social service systems there.

"People become overwhelmed with the enormity of the help they have to provide, and they have to go into their own resources," said Cleon Athill, vice president of a grass-roots citizen group called the Movement, which has been collecting donations of food, clothing and other supplies. "People have been coming and saying, for example, 'I have two people in my house; all my food has run out. Can you please provide me with some?'"

Shell-shocked from the storm, Gloria Cephas arrived on Antigua with six of her children and no possessions other than the clothes they wore.

Her savior was a property manager, James Richards. After a church member called to ask him for help housing evacuees, he arranged for Cephas to live for free in an upscale two-bedroom townhouse with a deck overlooking the harbor in the capital, St. John's.

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