3 Months After Irma, The State Of Barbuda
RAY SUAREZ, HOST:
Right behind Hurricane Harvey came Irma. It slammed into a group of Caribbean islands as a Category 5 storm. The island of Barbuda suffered some of the worst damage. An estimated 90 percent of the structures on the island were destroyed and some 1,700 residents were forced to evacuate to Barbuda's sister island, Antigua. Three months later, Barbuda still hasn't recovered, and it's dealing with some very unique rules about land use as it tries to rebuild. Our host, Michel Martin, has been checking in with journalist Anika Kentish from Antigua who's been following the recovery process.
MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: When we last spoke, the island was deserted essentially, that residents or some residents were coming back on the weekends to maybe collect some belongings and to clean up their properties but that nobody was living there. What's it like now?
ANIKA KENTISH: People are slowly going back to Barbuda, not in the numbers that officials want, but we have roughly about 200 people who have gone back. And there are several aid workers there who are assisting in the process, getting supplies out. At this stage, really, there's a great need for building supplies and things to help people get back on track with their homes and their businesses.
MARTIN: About the 200 or so people who've gone, how are they living, and what's their motivation for going back?
KENTISH: The last time I was there, which was sometime last month, I remember meeting an elderly gentleman who said, you know, that's his home. He knows no other place. And while he understands, yes, there was a need to evacuate, he felt he needed to be at home. In other cases, there are others who have gone back to rebuild in anticipation of their families joining them. It has to be noted though that until the schools open in Barbuda, you're not going to have large-scale migration back over to Barbuda.
MARTIN: It's my understanding that because the entire island was evacuated and that just about everybody left - I think everybody did leave - that this has reignited a very old debate both about governance and also about land use and who owns the land in Barbuda. Could you talk a little bit about that?
KENTISH: The long and short of it is that the land is owned in common trusts, OK. No one person owns land in Bermuda, which creates another challenge with the rebuilding process. Because the people of Barbuda don't individually own the land, it makes it difficult then to go back to a bank and say, hey, I've lost my home, I would like to borrow some money to rebuild - because they do not have title to that land which their house was sitting. And the fact of the matter is, the government right now is trying to push through legislation that would change that. And there's a lot of tension and a lot of debate about that, so much so that a group has formed itself. They call themselves Barbuda Silent No More.
MARTIN: What do they want? How do they want it to be? Do they want it to be - for individuals to have title to the land individually or what do they want?
KENTISH: They want to basically file injunction to stop the government from pushing forward that act. The fear is that in opening it up for people to hold title that developers, people who are out to make a dollar are going to come in and ruin this pristine place.
So, for example, Robert De Niro and some other investors are in the process of building a resort over there and there's a lot of back-and-forth about it. There are some who say, yes, it's good for the economy. And there are many that say, no, we want Barbuda to stay the way it is. We're not looking for that kind of investment. We want to keep Barbuda as the quiet, pristine place that it is.
MARTIN: And how are things in Antigua? I mean, I think that people will remember that everybody on the island was evacuated to Antigua, which is a lot larger. People have been sheltered, you know, wherever they can. Some people have family. There are some people staying at the cricket stadium. How is that going?
KENTISH: Well, you know, there are a lot of people who've just, you know, resigned themselves to saying, look, this is what the reality is and we'll just have to go through with it. Now, as the winter tourist season is getting off the ground, you've found that there are more opportunities for employment than there were at the time that Hurricane Irma blew through the country. There were a couple of resorts that, at the time of the hurricane, they were closed because they were doing the renovations. Now that they've reopened, they are picking up quite quickly. In the case of Sandals, I understand that their occupancy is expected to be at 100 percent over the holidays.
So it's a situation while, yes, at the time we took a very hard hit, there are opportunities for us to rebound. I still have to say though that a main concern that people have is just that things are not going fast enough. And there are a lot of people who would want to go home but right now cannot go home either because they have children enrolled in school or really they don't have anything to go home to and they don't currently have the means to rebuild.
MARTIN: That's Anika Kentish. She's a freelance journalist based in Antigua. And we've been talking to her over the last couple of months about how Antigua and Barbuda are recovering from those devastating hurricanes earlier this year. Anika was kind enough to join us via Skype. Anika Kentish, thanks so much for speaking with us.
KENTISH: And season's greetings to you and the NPR listeners.
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