When looking at the photos that continue to pour in, one can only describe them as eerie. The once lush, green, tropical forests are now stripped bare, brown and naked. Debris is scattered across the ground: tin, wood, cement, trash, walls, sheets, clothes, food, family photos—people’s belongings and memories swept away by the deadly wrath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. After the storms cleared, the media focused their gazes on Florida. The storm unexpectedly took a turn towards the west coast of Florida, leaving houses flooded and entire neighborhoods without electricity for a week. Meanwhile, the Caribbean was crying out but no one was listening. No one is listening.
The island of Barbuda (pronounced bar-byoo-da) currently has a population of zero for the first time in 300 years. After Hurricane Irma, the island that was once home to 1,800 people was declared “a complete disaster and uninhabitable” by their ambassador, Ronald Sanders. Just 30 miles away and relatively unscathed by the hurricanes, their sister island of Antigua took in Barbudans. It is impossible at this time for officials to even estimate how long it will take to rebuild the island since 95% of the structures lay in ruins but is estimated to cost $300 million.
The Caribbean (the Lesser Antilles particularly) is especially vulnerable when it comes to hurricanes. The region is comprised of incredibly small islands with tourist-based economies. On some islands, over 60% of the country’s GDP comes from tourism. Many houses are built for airflow in the tropical weather. Many houses are made of cheaper, less durable materials due to the cost of importing. All of the islands are also either former or current colonies. Combined with the unprecedented size of Hurricane Irma, it is not surprising that these beautiful, bright islands were swept away in just a few hours.
But why was no one paying attention to these islands? It’s simple: no one knows they exist.
U.S. schools teach little to nothing about the geography or people of the Caribbean. As someone whose family is from the West Indies, I have explained my life away in attempting to describe where my family’s home country is located. If you ask the average American where Saint Barthélemy is, they will probably say France. Technically, that is not wrong—St. Barts, along with Saint Martin, is an “overseas collectivity” of France. The countries that have achieved independence are often looked down upon by their former colonizers, who still possess a large amount of power and influence in the world. This leftover bitterness continues to hinder the Caribbean, especially in times like this when mass amounts of immediate aid are needed.
On top of that, the Caribbean is predominantly made up of people of color, many of whom arrived there via forced migration, such as slavery and indentured servitude. However, when these countries gained independence, the former country in power left no resources, causing most of these countries adopt neo-colonialist government. Many other factors have depleted the economies of these islands including the IMF, reliance on tourism, and lack of resources. If the news were to share the stories of the U.S. Virgin Islands or other Caribbean islands, the people would still not care. The people would hold the debt of these countries against them, call them primitive, and remain emotionless after seeing black and brown bodies suffering on their screens. Racism and lack of education are contributing factors to the ongoing pain of the vulnerable, mourning people who call the Caribbean home.