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

Ann M. Simmons, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

Not that Barbuda could support its own population right now.

"The main infrastructure is totally devastated," said Arthur Nibbs, the minister of agriculture, lands, fisheries and Barbuda affairs. "There's no electricity, there's no water. There's no security. It cannot be more challenging. My advice to them is that they should not be in a rush to return."

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, the nation's prime minister, Gaston Browne, described the 62-square-mile island -- best known by outsiders for its pink beaches and tropical seabird sanctuary -- as "uninhabitable."

He said that at least 90 percent of all homes suffered some type of damage and that most of those would require significant reconstruction or were destroyed. Preliminary estimates have put the cost of rebuilding at $250 million, more than 12 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

The island's main inhabitants now are brigades of government workers sent back to clean debris from the streets, spray against mosquitoes and pick up the carcasses of cattle, sheep, donkeys and dogs that were among Irma's victims.

To provide for the workers, the island's main supermarket, bakery and pharmacy have been fast-tracked for renovation, Mullin said.

Repair work is also scheduled to begin soon on buildings that suffered minor damage and can be made habitable relatively easily, he said. The government also plans to provide tents -- and possibly prefabricated buildings -- in which Barbudans could live while fixing their homes.

Supply shipments to Barbuda have been hampered by silt that was deposited during the storm and is blocking barges and other large vessels from docking on the island.

Most of Barbuda's only hospital was destroyed. An emergency medical post has been set up in one section of the building that survived, according to the country's health minister, Molwyn Joseph. Medical technicians were rotating into the facility for two days at a time.

Browne, the prime minister, has a grander vision for Barbuda: rebuilding it as an eco-friendly island and establishing a medical tourism industry that would draw patients with the island's warm weather and discount prices on health care. Talks were underway with various U.S. hospitals, he said.

The initiative would help develop an economy on Barbuda and ensure residents eventually go home, he said.

"It is in our interest to get them back there as soon as possible," Browne said. "We need them to be part of the rebuilding."

Carl Jason Francis was ready to take up the call.

He and his wife were evacuated to Antigua by helicopter after their 2-year-old son, Carl Francis Jr., was blown out of his godmother's arms during the storm and killed -- the lone death on Barbuda from the hurricane.

The family buried the boy in late September -- on Antigua.

"It's not easy being over here, when you're accustomed to Barbuda," said Francis, 50. "I'm going back to clean up."

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