As It Happens

Barbuda 'reduced to rubble' by Hurricane Irma, PM says

Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, told As It Happens he's "barely holding on, trying to preside over a difficult situation."
Storm leaves island nation 90% destroyed 0:59

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Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, says he's "barely holding on, trying to preside over a difficult situation."

The Caribbean nation was pummeled by Hurricane Irma this week and one of its namesake islands was left in complete shambles.

What's left of Barbuda, a popular tourism destination known for its sun and sand, is barely recognizable.

Barbuda is pictured pre-Irma on the left and post-Irma on the right. (Visit Antigua and Barbuda /ABS-TV Antigua via CBC News)

Nearly every building on Barbuda was damaged when the hurricane's core crossed almost directly over the island early Wednesday. About 60 per cent of its roughly 1,400 residents were left homeless. A two-year-old child was killed as a family tried to escape a damaged home during the storm.

And now the island is bracing for Jose, a second hurricane that appears to be following in Irma's path.

Browne spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off on Thursday about how Barbuda is coping. Here is part of their conversation.

What was your reaction when you saw the destruction of Barbuda yesterday?

It was an emotionally painful moment when I looked at the contrast between Antigua and Barbuda. Because, you know, the storm also impacted Antigua. We had winds up to 130 miles per hour, but we fared very well. The damage was limited to the extent that it's business as usual in Antigua today.

People recover broken parts of the dock after the passing of Hurricane Irma, in St. John's on Antigua. (Johnny Jno-Baptiste/Associated Press)

But in Barbuda, their fate was totally different. It was total carnage. They would have endured winds of up to 230 miles per hour, and that in itself created an unprecedented amount of damage in Barbuda, to the extent that 90 per cent of the properties there were actually damaged, many of them demolished. 

The institutions include schools, the airport, the seaport were damaged. Even the hospital had some limited damage. The infrastructure, which includes roads, cars and trains, the telecommunications infrastructure, the utility infrastructure, they've all been literally decimated.

Can you describe what it looked like?

I would say that Barbuda was literally reduced to rubble. It looked like a landfill, and that's no exaggeration.

About 90 per cent of buildings in Barbuda took damage during Irma. (ABS-TV Antigua via CBCNews)

You say that it was emotional. I'm sure it must have been, to see your country that way.

We have seen our once beautiful country totally decimated, and that is just heart-wrenching.

Now, one of the interesting things is that Barbuda only has leased property. They do not have freehold properties and generally the banks do not provide mortgages here on lease-hold property.

So, you find that the properties that have actually been impacted are properties that were built using decades of savings of Barbudans, and almost invariably they're not insured. So that, in itself, will make the recovery efforts even more difficult.

Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda Gaston Browne says he's 'barely holding on.' (Diego Azubel/Reuters)

We've estimated the rebuilding of Barbuda to be in excess of $100 million US. That is certainly beyond the means of our government.

What are people in Barbuda doing now? Do they have electricity? Do they have communications?

There's no electricity. There's no water. There's no telecommunications. We just recently got an additional ham radio over there as well as some satellite phones, but they were actually cut off for a good 12 hours. We had absolutely no contact with them for about 12 hours after the passage of Hurricane Irma.

But we are now back in communication with them. We are taking relief supplies over. That part of it is going very well so far. Our biggest issue now is to ensure that we mobilize sufficient resources to assist with the rebuilding efforts.

Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Jose (right) and Hurricane Katia (left) are pictured in the Atlantic Ocean in this Sept. 7, 2017 NOAA satellite handout photo. (NOAA/Reuters)

Another challenge that we're faced with now is there is an impending storm, Hurricane Jose, and if that one comes our way, which from all indications it is, then we may have to evacuate all the residents in Barbuda in the next 24 hours.

If you have to evacuate, how many people will you have to get off Barbuda?

I would suggest probably about 1,800 and we are making arrangements.

Have you ever seen or experienced anything like Hurricane Irma?

The residents in Barbuda, they have said that they have never, ever witnessed anything of that nature. Antigua and Barbuda are not unaccustomed to hurricanes and to powerful storms. That one was absolutely unprecedented and it's resulted in unprecedented damage.

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