Island nation twinned with Waltham Forest suffers hurricane horror, reports Russell Hargrave
A borough resident spent days fearing for her family as Hurricane Irma devastated their homeland of Barbuda – an island since evacuated because of the destruction.
Annette Henry’s father was born on the tiny Caribbean island before coming to the UK as part of the Windrush generation in the 1960s, and she last visited the island to see family in June.
This was just three months before September’s hurricane brought 185mph winds to the Caribbean, where it made landfall on Barbuda as a ‘category five’ – the strongest possible rating – and destroyed an estimated 95 percent of the island’s buildings.
Seeing the disaster unfold from 4,000 miles away in Higham Hill was “horrific” according to Annette. She told the Echo: “I was watching the hurricane just touching the tip of Barbuda on an app as we went to bed, then we woke up to radio silence.”
Barbuda’s only communications mast was wiped out, leaving Annette without news of her family for two-and-a-half days. Her relatives have now fled to neighbouring Antigua, but she remains worried about one elderly uncle, who hasn’t been heard from since the hurricane hit.
Even for those who are safe, it was a frightening event.
Annette continued: “This storm was off the scale, something they had never experienced before.
“My cousin was in her house with her fiancé, and literally the back door flew open and then the roof came off.”
Annette’s cousin was able to find shelter after the hurricane in a private house in Antigua. She ran the family business, a small bakery, but has been forced to leave it all behind. She was given two tea cups but, Annette says: “This is all she has now. She has lost everything.”
What will happen next?
“People’s homes are open to the elements. The clean-up hasn’t started.
“Barbuda is a little paradise really, [but] we don’t know how much of a paradise it’s going to be in the aftermath of this.”
Annette also spoke of her determination to do everything she can to raise local awareness of the disaster, especially given the strong connection between the island and the local area.
Since 1999 Waltham Forest has been ‘twinned’ with St Johns in Antigua and Barbuda, and Roseau in Dominica, in an arrangement inspired by Franklyn Georges, who served as Waltham Forest’s first Afro-Caribbean mayor in 1990-91.
The council states that the twinning agreement exists to “promote friendship, information exchange, and mutual understanding” between the borough and the Caribbean. Details of an appeal to help Barbuda was shared by the local authority on its website a few days after the hurricane, but Annette says she hopes the council will do more to organise and promote a fundraising effort in the long-term.
Annette describes the overall response to the disaster so far as “really disheartening” and added: “It feels like there has been tumbleweed.”
Two weeks after Hurricane Irma, the Caribbean was struck by another category five storm, Hurricane Maria, with islands including Puerto Rico and Dominica this time devastated. It is only the second year in recorded history that two category five Atlantic storms have made landfall, the other being 2007.
Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne said in an interview with CNN: “These storms are more ferocious, they are coming in greater frequency; evidence that climate change is real.”
A charity appeal, Barbuda Rise Again, was started after the hurricane to help residents in the aftermath of the disaster: