Hurricane Irma, Thursday: Devastation in the Caribbean…Heading Toward Florida

September 7, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |


Once Irma became a Category 4 hurricane almost a week ago, the U.S. news media fell in love with the phrase “Hurricane Irma is barreling towards Florida.” If you read most of these stories, it sounded like all that stood between Irma and the U.S. was open seas. They failed to mention that before Irma could reach the U.S., there were many island nations, with a total population of over 35 million people, and with far fewer resources than the U.S., facing this killer storm. And many have been pummeled by Irma in the last three days, while the U.S. media has trained people to cast their eyes overwhelmingly on the possible U.S. impact.

As of tonight, the toll of destruction and suffering on the islands that Hurricane Irma has already hit is only beginning to come in, but it is clear that the devastation was extensive. This is mainly due to the extreme power of the storm (which was almost certainly amplified by the effects of global climate change).

But in addition to that, there is the impact of centuries of colonialism and imperialism, which slaughtered the native populations, brought in millions of slaves to work under the most brutal conditions, systematically looted these nations of their natural resources, and in more modern times organized economic development to serve the needs of the imperialist powers, and not the people. The result of all this is incredible poverty in a number of countries, and in others, highly distorted development where islands that were once rich in agriculture are now dependent on food imports, while most of the people work in hotels, clustered on the coast and catering to U.S. and European tourists. All of this makes them even more vulnerable to the impact of major storms.

The Devastation in the Caribbean

Worst hit (so far) were the tiny island of Barbuda (part of the nation of Antigua and Barbuda), population 1,700 and the larger island of St. Martin (population 78,000).

Much of Barbuda is underwater, half the population is homeless, and over 90% of structures have been destroyed, including a key telecommunications tower that was snapped in half, according to the Prime Minister of Barbuda and Antigua.

On St. Martin, an official said “95% of the island is destroyed,” and reported at least four people dead. The desalinization plant, which the whole island depends on for water, is down, as is much phone service. Another official tried to describe the scene: “There are shipwrecks everywhere, destroyed houses everywhere. It’s just unbelievable. It’s indescribable.”

To add to its problems, St. Martin is a colony of not one, but two different imperialist powers, France and the Netherlands. So instead of a single central government coordinating relief and reconstruction, there are two weak powers, each tied to and depending for aid on a different European country thousands of miles away.

Another colony, the U.S. Virgin Islands, with 100,000 people, was hit hard today—at least four people were killed, and officials describe “catastrophic” damage. The British Virgin Islands were lashed as well, but no news has reached the outside world yet about what happened.

Puerto Rico (with 3.4 million people) was spared the full force of the storm, but its infrastructure has been so weakened by years of debt crisis imposed by U.S. imperialism, that a million households are without power, and the government has already said that it could take up to six months to restore service. Another 17% of the population has no water.

A great worry is what is happening on the island of Hispaniola, shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic (each with about 10 million people). Haiti in particular is extremely vulnerable, after a century of U.S. domination (going back to the U.S. invasion and occupation of 1915-34).

Already bled dry by the U.S. and the various dictators it has imposed, in 2010 Haiti was hit by a massive earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands, and left 1.6 million homeless—at least 85,000 people are still living in camps, one third of which don’t even have a latrine. Then a cholera epidemic killed thousands, and last year Hurricane Matthew slammed Haiti, producing massive flooding and mudslides wiping out major highways and whole villages.

Irma skirted the north coast of Haiti, and there is little news of what happened, but it is almost certain that the heavy rains and winds of even a passing blow will spread more flooding, more cholera, more suffering. A 35-year-old mother of three told the Washington Post, “I guess we are worried, but we are already living in another hurricane, Hurricane Misery.”

As we write this, Irma is pummeling the 32,000 people on the Turks and Caicos Islands, which is facing a storm surge of 15-20 feet above normal. Most of the most populous island is only about 25 feet above sea level, so the danger of flooding is extreme, but again, there are few reports so far. There is also considerable danger to Cuba, a nation of 11 million people. We will continue to write on all this as reports come in.

Florida Bracing for Direct Hit

Virtually all computer models now predict a direct hit by Irma on South Florida this weekend. Although current forecasts are for Irma to weaken to a Category 4, that still means winds of up to 156 miles per hour, the speed of a moderate—but 40 mile wide!—tornado. This will still be an extremely powerful and destructive storm.

The last time South Florida was hit by a storm like this was in 1992, when Hurricane Andrew hit the Homestead area at Florida’s southern tip with winds of over 155 mph, and this is very much on the minds of Floridians. That storm was terrifying: 25,000 homes were destroyed, 101,000 damaged and 40 people killed; 99% of mobile homes in the Homestead area were destroyed; Homestead Airforce Base was leveled; docked boats were smashed by the hundreds; and even 60 miles from the storm center, large trees were uprooted and light poles snapped. 

But as bad as that was, there are a number of reasons to think that Irma could potentially be much worse.

Hurricane Irma, while it may have slightly lower wind speeds when it reaches Florida, is a much larger storm. And the South Florida area—much of which used to be rural—has been greatly built up in the last 25 years, and is now a vast urban/suburban sprawl of housing developments, malls and so on, with a total population of six million people. This not only means that far more people are in the path of the storm, but the overbuilding—similar to what we saw in Texas with Hurricane Harvey—reduces the ability of the ground to absorb water, increasing the danger of flooding.

Flooding is a great danger for another reason—the city of Miami is actually sinking, while sea levels continue to rise due to global warming. As a result, Miami now experiences flooding on sunny days in October, when the tides are their highest. And the whole city is virtually at sea level, with no hills to speak of. Imagine what that would mean if there was a 15-foot storm surge like those which Irma caused in the Caribbean!

Another concern is the ability of housing, construction cranes and other structures to withstand high winds. After Andrew it came out that much of the destruction was a direct result of capitalism, and not the storm itself. First, the authorities had maintained lax building codes for years in order to encourage a major building boom in the 1980s, even though South Florida is smack in the middle of “Hurricane Alley.” And there were only about 20 inspectors for the vast South Florida area. 

But many buildings were not even built to that code. The housing boom set off a competitive frenzy among dozens of builders and contractors vying for business. To keep costs low, they “cut corners” in criminal ways. One prominent example was that many contractors did not use the proper bolts and straps to attach roofs to load bearing beams on the walls—in fact, some did not attach them at all, so they were only held on by their own weight.

Shoddily built suburban subdivisions sprang up in South Dade County, and though this area did not feel the main force of Andrew, roofs flew off on block after block. And once the roof is gone, so goes the house. Yet older and better built homes directly across the street were virtually undamaged.

After this scandal broke, the government passed much tougher building codes, and increased the number of inspectors. But since the houses that were destroyed during Hurricane Andrew had not been built to meet the weak code back then, it is quite possible that the ones built since then will not meet the much stricter (and therefore more expensive) codes now in effect. In fact, the builders have been chafing at these standards, and since 2004 have succeeded in getting them watered down. (See USA Today, “Hurricane Irma could test Florida’s Hurricane Andrew-inspired building codes.”) And of course, much of that old, badly built housing stock is still around.

As we said as Irma started to hit the Caribbean: “Hurricanes are notoriously difficult to predict with certainty, so we cannot say who will be hit or how badly. But one thing we do know—as with Hurricanes Harvey, Katrina, Sandy, and Andrew and every other major natural disaster, Irma’s path of destruction is revealing and will further reveal the underlying oppressive relations of this system, its complete inability to meet the needs of the people, and its continued destruction of the environment of the planet we call home.”




Volunteers Needed... for and Revolution

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.