In the wake of Hurricane Irma, the hardest-hit Caribbean islands are beginning to recover from the devastation. Meet the children who are rebuilding their lives after witnessing the destruction of their homes and schools.
By Manuel Moreno and Marta López
ST. JOHN’S, Antigua and COJÍMAR, Cuba, 22 September 2017 – From 6–10 September, Hurricane Irma tore through the islands of the Caribbean, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. The category 5 storm was one of the most powerful storms ever recorded over the Atlantic Ocean.
In the aftermath of the storm, the well-being of hundreds of thousands of children in the Caribbean is still in danger. With high winds, heavy rain and storm surges, Irma caused widespread damage to homes, schools, health centers and basic infrastructure across the region.
An estimated 2.4 million children are at risk from the impact of the hurricane, of which 271,000 were directly affected. Meet the children and families who are beginning to rebuild their lives, and learn how UNICEF is helping.
Psychosocial support in Antigua: Nickgram’s story
The Eastern Caribbean island of Barbuda was among the hardest hit by Hurricane Irma. The entire island was almost completely destroyed by the storm, and the majority of the residents were evacuated to neighbouring Antigua.
Children are among those who have suffered the worst. Their houses have been destroyed, schools have been cancelled and many have been moved to shelters.
"In the drawing you can see my house before and after the hurricane," says seven-year-old Nickgram Charles as he displays his artwork to his classmates.
Nickgram is among the displaced Barbudan children who are living in shelters on Antigua. Although children from Barbuda are not eligible to go to school in Antigua, he is now attending classes at the National Cricket Stadium as part of UNICEF’s Return to Happiness program.
The programme is conducted by trained professionals who use a mix of play-related activities, drawing, music and physical activities to help children recover from the emotional distress of losing their homes. The programme will be also implemented in the hard-hit islands of Turks and Caicos, the British Virgin Islands and Anguilla.
“These children witnessed a horrific hurricane that tore their homes away, destroyed their schools and left the island they called home totally in tatters. They will need lots of help to deal with the trauma associated with those experiences,” says Khin-Sandi Lwin, UNICEF Representative for the Eastern Caribbean. In addition to psychosocial support, UNICEF has deployed additional staff and humanitarian supplies, including water purification tablets, hygiene kits, tents and educational material.
Witnessing the devastation in Cuba: Nathaly, Alain and Adam's story
In the small fishing village of Cojímar, Cuba, just a few kilometres from the cenre of Havana, the strong tropical storm winds of Hurricane Irma arrived on the morning of Saturday, 9 September. Sea swelling occurs several times a year, so initially it didn’t surprise anyone, but the situation changed dramatically as the day went by.
"Here the sea always swells," says Nathaly, "But none of us thought it would make things worse in such a short time. It caught us all by surprise. At four o'clock in the afternoon the sea was already entering the house and at dawn the sea completely covered the roof."
Nathaly and her two children Adam, 4, and Alain, 11, spent the hurricane with relatives a few streets higher up. From there, they watched as people carried both their possessions and children uphill while the sea continued to rise and destroy homes.
"What scared me most was to see the sea inundate us, with that strong wind,” says Alain. “I went as far from the sea as I could because it sounded very strong, it was very dark and I did not know what was going to happen."
After losing the stove and with nothing to cook, the family now depends on the prepared food stall that has been installed temporarily in the lower area of the village.
Preliminary reports in mid-September show between 210,000 and 220,000 homes and more than 2,262 schools across Cuba have been affected due to rain and strong winds from Irma. Sanitation and hygiene remain top concerns, as scarcity in safe water supply and the high risk of pollution from flooding may increase the risk of water-borne diseases.
UNICEF is supporting the more than 170,000 children from the most affected areas of the island who are suffering the direct consequences of the disaster. Three million chlorine tablets have already been supplied for distribution. UNICEF also is working to mobilize funds for water, sanitation and hygiene, as well as providing school supplies, psychosocial support, and recreational activities for children.
UNICEF is on the ground in all of the affected countries, including Cuba, Dominican Republic, Eastern and Western Caribbean islands (Antigua, Anguilla, Barbuda, British Virgin Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands) and Haiti, coordinating the response efforts with governments, conducting rapid need assessments and delivering supplies.
UNICEF's priorities include providing safe drinking water to communities affected, as well as providing psychosocial support to affected children and their families, and to restore education through school rehabilitation and child-friendly centres.