Beginning on Wednesday, September 6, Hurricane Irma wreaked a path of devastation across the Caribbean. As of Friday evening, the storm’s death toll stood at 84. It may continue to rise in the coming days, as the affected communities continue to assess the scale of the damage.
For many island nations, the damage caused by the storm has been apocalyptic. In Barbuda, the first island hit by Irma, 90 per cent of buildings were destroyed, and 50 per cent of the population left homeless. The French-administered territory of St Martin was reported to have been 95 per cent destroyed, while more than a million Puerto Ricans were left without power.
One of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic ocean, Irma initially ranked as a category 5 on the Saffir–Simpson scale, meaning its wind speed was over 252 kilometres per hour. By the time it made landfall in Florida on September 10, Irma had become a category 4 storm, but it did substantial damage to the state nonetheless, destroying one in four homes in the Florida Keys and causing widespread power outages.
The devastation caused by Irma has reawakened controversy over the American Red Cross (ARC) and its handling of donations. Much of this controversy stems from a 2015 report by NPR and ProPublica, which charged the ARC with diverting tens of millions of dollars raised to support vital humanitarian efforts in Haiti. The ARC has denied mishandling relief funds, but has found corruption rumours difficult to shake. As the storm ravaged one Caribbean island after another, many of the region’s inhabitants took to Twitter to beg international observers not to donate to the ARC, and instead to channel much-needed funding to local relief organizations.
Both in the U.S. and across the Caribbean, Irma’s impact heightened already vast disparities between wealthy and impoverished communities. In Florida, where the wealth gap is significantly higher than most other states, Miami Beach millionaires left their securely hurricane-proofed mansions in compliance with a mandatory evacuation order. A few miles away in the primarily Black neighbourhood of Liberty City, many residents rode out the storm with limited supplies and little or no protection for their homes.
On the island of St. Martin, a well-known tax haven, an outcry erupted after multiple reports described evacuation boats prioritizing wealthy, white American tourists over the island’s local population. It was also alleged that Air France initially tripled its ticket prices for flights out of St. Martin and nearby St. Barthélemy, rendering them inaccessible to most locals.
Arriving in the immediate aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Katia, and followed closely by hurricane Jose, Irma has also sparked much debate over the role played by climate change in these consecutive disasters. The consensus seems to be that while climate change cannot be said to have caused any of these storms, it certainly made their impact deadlier. Notably, rising sea levels exacerbate the storm surges (devastating waves and flooding) caused by hurricanes, and warmer temperatures result in more evaporation, and thus heavier rainfall. Many scientific authorities are predicting that the coming decades will bring hurricanes of Irma’s calibre with increasing frequency.
With material from The Guardian, Reuters, RT, and Vox.