Last Sunday, September 24, all the services in St Mary’s church had a collection for Shelterbox. And what is Shelterbox? Put simply, it is a charity that provides shelter to support recovery. Their big green boxes deliver the essentials to people who have been at the centre of appalling natural disasters. The Shelterboxes contain family-sized tents and Shelterkits contain all the essential tools to start the repair or rebuilding of homes. They include cooking sets, solar lights and activity sets for children. So why should I be so interested, tucked safely away in a little house in Rye?
In my case, my son and his family have made their home in Antigua, hit by hurricanes Irma (September 6), Jose (September 10) and Maria (September 18). Antigua and Barbuda is a sovereign state, since November 1981, and Queen Elizabeth remains head of state. It is a member of the Commonwealth, made up of the islands of Antigua and Barbuda and a number of smaller islands. Barbuda, really just a coral hump in the ocean, was, until the eye of hurricane Irma hit, home to 1,700 people and an excellent hotel. 90% of the buildings on the island were destroyed in one night, and the devastation was finished off a few days later by hurricanes Jose and Maria. Antigua was wind blown and with some flooding, but largely unscathed, unlike Barbuda which was largely destroyed, all the residents evacuated to Antigua, where they are now in shelters or living with friends and relatives.
I spent an extremely uncomfortable week glued to mobile phone and iPad, waiting for news. I discovered the Caribbean News Service, the Antigua Observer, all available online, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, commonly known by those at the forefront of the hurricane season, as noaa. The Caribbean News Service and the Antigua Observer kept me informed of the position of the storms and the comments and statements put out by the governments and the people of the Caribbean. Noaa showed me exactly how wide the storm was, its wind speed, its expected trajectory and other meteorological details. It had clear charts and understandable information.
My son kept me up to date by using Facetime, for as long as he could. As hurricane Irma started to hit, Antigua turned off all the power, which of course affected the working of the desalination plants. This meant that water was available only in bottles or if collected from the enormous barrels outside every house, there to catch rain water, but of course the pumps weren’t working to get it into the building. The schools closed at midday before the storm arrived and could only reopen when the electricity was reconnected or if they had generators.
Sitting here, I tried to imagine what it must be like – my son has a woodwork shop and is a carpenter and furniture maker, my daughter-in-law a teacher. On contacting him on the eve of hurricane Irma, a Sunday, he was still in the workshop, completing thirty storm screens. He had still to sort out his own house, everything had to be put inside that was on the deck surrounding the house, or tied down, the air conditioning unit had to be removed from my granddaughter’s room, all in case objects became flying death traps. They had the torches and lamps to hand, no lights in the darkness otherwise. The wind was beginning to get up, and my family were all in one room, ready to move into the mainly concrete bathroom if necessary. The window was covered , there was no air, it was really hot.
The whole experience, from this distance, felt utterly unreal. News came through about 24 hours after that they were all safe, but Barbuda had been badly damaged and would have to be evacuated. It was such a relief, so different from my experience of a sunny beautiful island. It was obvious that more aid would be needed than the Antiguan government had resources for, which brings me back to Shelterbox. They were on the ground, assessing damage and providing help, very soon afterwards. Look at the Twitter account and there is a picture of the destruction. Very unlike cool, clean East Sussex, no cholera risk, no zika virus. We need to recognise how fortunate we are.
Photos: Shutterstock ,G.Roder