Hurricane Irma, the giant storm system swirling in the Atlantic Ocean, hit Barbuda on Wednesday, making the tiny Caribbean island, “barely habitable,” according to its prime minister, Gaston Browne.
The eye of Irma passed almost directly over Barbuda, leaving 60% of the island’s 1,400 people homeless, Browne told The Associated Press.
Homes were “either…totally demolished or they would have lost their roof,” he said. “It is just really a horrendous situation.”
Barbuda is one half of the twin island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, and its counterpart, Antigua, wasn’t hit as hard by the hurricane. (The nation also includes a series of smaller islands.)
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“The forecast was that Antigua would be devastated, our infrastructure demolished, people killed and our economy destroyed. In the light of day, the picture is very different,” Browne said in a statement.
The vast majority of the nation’s 100,000 residents live on Antigua, the larger of the two main islands at 280 square kilometers. Its twin is 160 square kilometers. On his Facebook page, Browne referenced the minimal damage in Antigua: “Thank God for his mercies and blessings. He has protected and spared us from the worst of Irma. Thank God that there are no … hurricane casualties reported to this time,” he wrote.
Nevertheless, the damage to Barbuda, in addition to being a human tragedy, could hurt the nation’s overall economy, which depends, in large part, on tourism.
The majority-Christian, majority-English speaking Antigua and Barbuda, which gained its independence from Britain in 1981, is more prosperous than some of its Caribbean neighbors due to its tourism and its offshore financial services. According to the World Bank, its GDP totaled $1.5 billion in 2016 compared to nearby St. Lucia ($1.4 billion), Grenada ($1 billion), St. Kitts and Nevis ($917 million), and Dominica ($525 million).
Antigua and Barbuda’s GDP has been on an upward trajectory in recent years after enduring the financial crisis that was made worse for the island by the scandal involving Texas billionaire Allen Stanford, who was the nation’s largest investor. Stanford redeveloped large swaths of the island and at one point was the nation’s largest employer. But when a Houston court convicted him in 2012 of running a $7 billion Ponzi scheme from his offshore bank in Antigua, his empire crumbled and the island’s reputation was tarnished.
Prime Minister Browne won election in 2014 vowing to remake the nation into an “economic powerhouse” with “premier tourism and financial services,” according to the BBC.
Irma’s visit to Barbuda will likely put a wrench in those plans.
Browne estimated that 95% of the homes on the island had sustained some kind of damage from the storm, an “unprecedented” level of destruction, he said.
“It is just a total devastation,” he said, pegging the cost of rebuilding at as high as $150 million. “Barbuda right now is literally a rubble. We have to raise a significant amount of resources now to rebuild Barbuda and to restore it to normalcy.”