Caribbean reels from hurricane’s wrath
More than a dozen Caribbean islands lay in ruin this week after Hurricane Irma devastated the region, killing nearly 40 people and turning lush paradises into post-apocalyptic wastelands. The storm struck with Category 5 force, with wind speeds of 185 miles per hour, bringing punishing waves and lashing rain that flooded cities and towns across Cuba, Antigua, Barbuda, Anguilla, St. Martin, St. Barts, and beyond. Wide swaths of the U.S. and British Virgin Islands were reduced to rubble; in some areas, Irma leveled 90 percent of the buildings. Amid the chaos and desperation were widespread reports of looting and other crimes. On Tortola in the B.V.I., as many as 100 “high-risk” prisoners broke free, seized weapons, and roamed the island, as British Foreign Office minister Sir Alan Duncan warned of “the complete breakdown of law and order.” On St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, National Guard troops patrolled the streets and the Coast Guard helped evacuate vacationers to cruise ships bound for Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Many of the islands are territories of distant European nations, complicating relief efforts and leaving many residents feeling abandoned. Surveying damage in St. Martin and St. Barts, French President Emmanuel Macron promised “to rebuild not just a new life but also a better life.” British foreign secretary Boris Johnson toured the B.V.I. and Anguilla amid widespread criticism that London had been slow to respond. “We are feeling very much like the stepchild,” said Anguillan lawyer Josephine Gumbs-Connor.
What the columnists said
Irma has laid bare the awkwardness of colonial rule, said Kate Maltby in CNN.com. Ravaged areas such as St. Martin and the B.V.I. are “an ocean away from their old imperial masters.” When disaster strikes “and citizens begin to die, many begin to question why rescue decisions are being made from Paris, London, or The Hague.”
“The wild isolation” that made these islands ideal for honeymoons “has turned them into cutoff, chaotic nightmares,” said Anika Kentish and Michael Weissenstein in the Associated Press. Irma snapped their “fragile links to the outside world,” pounding airports, decapitating cellphone towers, and strewing boats like litter on land. The immediate concern is “access to safe drinking water and shelter,” said Matt Reynolds in NewScientist.com. Meanwhile, stagnant and contaminated water bring disease-carrying mosquitoes and cholera— which overwhelmed Haiti after Hurricane Matthew last year.
Puerto Rico was spared the worst of Irma’s fury, but the storm still knocked out the power grid, brutally “exposing the island’s decrepit infrastructure,” said Luis Ferré-Sadurní in The New York Times. With the U.S. territory mired in recession, efforts to modernize its oil-burning electrical plants “and diversify energy sources have mostly come to a halt.” Privatizing the public utilities could be a solution—but it’s a divisive issue with stiff union opposition. Whatever the strategy, for Puerto Ricans, “Irma was a close call”—and a call to action before the next disaster strikes.