Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda Gaston Browne. (FILE)
UNITED NATIONS – Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda has appealed to the international community for urgent aide in rebuilding the island that was ravaged during the recent passage of Hurricane Irma.
Browne, in his presentation on Thursday said Barbuda is not fit for habitation.
“Antigua and Barbuda urgently requires the assistance of the international community, including the international development and finance institutions, to accomplish this vital task of rebuilding Barbuda.”
“And, I should say, Mr President, that we have not outstretched the palm of our hand because we crave; we plead because we need,” he added. “Barbuda is not only a natural disaster, it is a humanitarian crisis that now consumes Antigua.”
The Antigua and Barbuda leader noted that, on September 6, the small, two-island state was “the victim of the ferocity of Hurricane Irma, the largest storm ever endured in the Atlantic in human history.
“The island of Barbuda was decimated; its entire population left homeless; and its buildings reduced to empty shells,” he said.
Fortunately, Browne said, the twin island state was spared the full blast of Hurricane Maria just nine days later, although sustained winds of up to 60 miles per hour “gave us a troubling awareness of the agony visited on the nearby islands of Dominica, Guadeloupe and Puerto Rico.”
Having witnessed the devastation of Barbuda and the desolation of its inhabitants after the ravages of Irma, Browne said his “heart bleeds for the people of the countries that have now been brutalized by Maria, and those that will suffer its cruelty in the coming days.”
The prime minister said he came to the General Assembly because he considered it of “utmost importance, to speak to the world’s representatives collectively about my country’s experience and the huge challenges faced by the Caribbean islands,” stating that Barbuda and its inhabitants were among the worst in the region affected by Hurricane Irma.
When Irma thundered over the 62-square-mile Barbuda, Browne said the hurricane was 375 miles wide, with gale force winds of 220 miles per hour.
He said Barbuda did not stand the “faintest chance against such size, such ferocity and such intensity,” declaring that the island was “destroyed, and my government was compelled to evacuate all of the inhabitants to Antigua.”
Browne said that, for the first time in over 300 years, there is now no permanent resident on Barbuda, stating that “the footprints of an entire civilisation have been emasculated by the brutality and magnitude of Irma.
“Everything that meant anything to the inhabitants had to be left behind – their homes, their possessions, their history; indeed, everything that defines them as a society and as a people,” he said, adding that “mercifully, Antigua, the larger of the two islands, suffered no major damage, and it could begin to function normally within 48 hours.”
But, had that not been the case, Browne said how the nation would have coped is “simply beyond imagination,” stating that, overnight, Antigua’s population increased by almost three per cent.
“I know of no country that could easily cope with such an unplanned, unexpected and unscheduled increase in its population,” he said.
In addition to providing shelter, accommodation and basic necessities to the evacuated residents of Barbuda, the prime minister said the social services on Antigua are now under tremendous strain in providing school places for an additional 600 children; medical services for the elderly; and a means of income for the able-bodied.
Naturally, he said, the residents of Barbuda are anxious to return to their homeland, but he stressed that the island “remains unfit for human habitation,” pointing out that there is no electricity and potable water, and that 95 per cent of the buildings have been destroyed or severely damaged.
Browne said preliminary estimates have placed the cost of rebuilding Barbuda at about US$250 million, which represents 15 percent or more, of the twin-island state’s Gross Domestic Product of about US$1.5 billion.
“It is simply, a stretch beyond our reach,” he declared, praising those nations and persons who were the first responders, particularly the government and people of Venezuela, “who went beyond the call of duty to assist.”
Browne also acknowledged the commitment and contribution from the government and people of China; the governments of Cuba, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Canada, Dominican Republic and sister states of the Caribbean Community, “who gave generously from the little they have.”
He said the contribution includes Dominica, “which, through one wretched night, lost a significant amount of precious lives and years of hard-earned development, at the unrelenting battering of Hurricane Maria.”
Bowne said Barbudans are now being cared for “as best we can, with very limited resources.”
But he warned that, “as the period of care lengthens, not only do the conditions worsen, but the cost increases, causing my government to borrow money on commercial terms at high-interest rates, swelling our already burdensome national debt.”
In the same vein, the Antigua and Barbuda leader quickly pointed out that the present international financial architecture is leaving small states, such as Antigua and Barbuda, behind.
He said whatever position on climate change any nation takes, the evidence of global warming is now “irrefutably stronger,” adding that “two Category 5 hurricanes within 12 days, that unrelentingly pounded so many countries, can no longer be dismissed as ‘the vagaries of the weather’, nor can they be explained as ‘nature’s doing’”.
Browne said hurricanes are stronger and bigger because they are absorbing moisture from increasingly warmer seas, caused by global warming.
“And, that is a man-made phenomenon, whose manufacture is attributable to those nations that consume 80 per cent or more of the world’s primary energy, emitting dangerous levels of pollution into the atmosphere,” he said, stating that all 14 Caribbean Community countries together produce less than 0.1 per cent of global emissions.
“We are the least of the polluters, but the largest of the casualties,” he added. “The unfairness, injustice and inequality are painfully obvious.
“If these frequent and brutal storms are to be withstood, Caribbean islands and certain parts of the United Sates, need to construct more resilient buildings and infrastructure than now exists,” he continued.
That means, Browne said, that the international developmental and financial institutions, need to provide financing at concessionary rates without artificial impediments.
“If this does not happen, the subsequent cost in lives and property is too frightening to contemplate,” he cautioned. (CMC)