When it comes to economic stability, many experts invoke the old cliché that when the U.S. sneezes, the Caribbean catches pneumonia. But who helps nurse the Caribbean back to health?
After hurricanes ravaged islands throughout the Lesser Antilles, images of the devastation flooded news sites and social media but were followed by an immediate pivot to nonstop coverage of Florida’s storm preparation. According to Media Matters, top Sunday-morning news outlets spent less than one minute discussing Puerto Rico immediately following Hurricane Maria. Even less time was devoted to coverage of other islands, or those affected by hurricanes Irma and Jose, leaving Caribbean families in the dark.
“We’ve had to look out for our people because if this shows us anything, it’s that we’re all we’ve got.”
—Sheniko Frett, President of Virgin Islands worldwide
“My sister called me from Tortola in tears because they weren’t being told anything,” says Lester Liburd, a Washington, D.C.-based photographer from the British Virgin Islands. “They get American channels, so when they’re trying to find out what’s happening on our own island, they couldn’t. It was all about Florida.”
A lack of adequate news updates can hinder relief and recovery efforts. But for Caribbean Diasporas in the U.S., when the media and public fall short, it’s their time to step up. Caribbean Americans are leading the way to make sure the region isn’t forgotten.
“We’ve had to be our own media,” says Sheniko Frett, president of Virgin Islands Worldwide and a federal director of operations at the nonprofit, who is from St. Thomas. Following Irma’s landfall, Frett united Caribbean-American business and community leaders in the D.C. area to form the Caribbean Disaster Relief and Recovery Alliance. Together with representatives of several Caribbean nations, they’re sending supplies and medical professionals back home.
“We’ve had to look out for our people because if this shows us anything, it’s that we’re all we’ve got,” he says. “And we have a responsibility to our communities here in the continental U.S. to make sure Americans know we’re more than just your vacation spot.”
The Caribbean has large Diasporas of nationals and first-generation Americans living in cities throughout the U.S., including New York, Boston and Atlanta. This weekend, thousands gathered in one of the country’s largest Caribbean communities for the annual Miami Broward One Carnival. Revelers celebrated their West Indian heritage with a week of feting before a costumed parade as the grand finale. But amid the party vibes, there was a somber reflection on the suffering of many island nations. Fetes throughout Miami quickly switched gears, offering to donate a portion or all of their proceeds to organizational relief efforts.
“For Caribbean people, carnival is almost as powerful as hurricanes. It’s hard to stop the power of culture,” says Marlon Hill, a Jamaican-American attorney and member of the Miami carnival’s host committee. “We knew it was a time to lean on each other and use our music and our carnival to uplift one another.”
Rather than cancel the carnival altogether, the committee opted to move forward, using the festival as an opportunity for relief, soliciting donations through the newly established U.S.-Caribbean Strong Relief Fund. It’s a long-term effort that Hill says will be proactive, moving forward, in natural-disaster relief before storms even hit.
“This cannot be a short-term response. Recovery efforts are going to take many years,” Hill says. “Beside the infrastructure rebuilding, our people have gone through traumatic experiences that will require mental and emotional support for some time.”
That long-term commitment also extends to Caribbean-American leaders. Since the storms’ destruction, Delegate Stacey Plaskett, a Democrat who represents the U.S. Virgin Islands, has split her time between surveying conditions on the islands of St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas and meeting with Caribbean-American organizations on the mainland. Although she’s frustrated by what she calls “negligent” treatment of U.S. territories, she says she’s encouraged by the commitment of Caribbean Americans to hold the government and media accountable.
“I know that the federal government is here,” she says in a phone interview from St. Croix. “I see some progress and movements that have been made, but I don’t think it’s enough. That’s why Caribbean Americans are coming together because they recognize how much more it’s going to take to fully recover.”
Along with Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), Plaskett is advocating for relief on the policy side and calling on leaders of Caribbean descent to join the cause. Those efforts include lobbying Congress for federal disaster assistance and confronting the disproportionate effects of climate change on the region.
“If we don’t say something, we’re going to lose out,” she says. “There will be another hurricane. So it’s time for us Caribbean-American politicians, actors and athletes—those of us with a platform—to rally support for the long haul.”
For many of the small islands devastated by a rare string of powerful hurricanes, there’s a long road to recovery ahead. Places like Barbuda, Dominica and St. Maarten are almost completely destroyed, having lost as much as 80 percent of their infrastructure. The combined death toll of hurricanes Irma, Jose and Maria, which now stands at more than 200, is expected to climb as rescuers continue to struggle to reach remote areas.
As the U.S. now focuses its attention on the devastation in its other Caribbean territory, Puerto Rico, Hill hopes the rest of the country will view the situation as an opportunity to learn more about an underreported region he says is “well rooted in the American landscape.”
“Right now, people may not know anything about Anguilla, or that Dominica is different from the Dominican Republic, but this is a time where people need to be asking those questions,” he says. “Take these opportunities to learn more about us.
“There’s no reason to only know what’s happening in the Caribbean when a natural disaster strikes,” he adds.