Many in the media are reporting that Hurricane Irma’s U.S. death toll—meaning those who died in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina—was 39. But the correct U.S. number may be as many as 50 or more. That higher figure includes those who died in the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, whose residents are U.S. citizens.
The reason mainland Americans so easily forget about those Americans is that they reside in the Caribbean, a basin that is great to cruise through and snorkel in but inconvenient to pay much attention to. When a monstrous storm like Irma hits the United States, its first victims, the Caribbean islands that often buffer the blow that Miami or Hilton Head or Corpus Christi eventually receive, usually do not get the Anderson Cooper treatment on cable news.
Caribbean islands usually do not get the Anderson Cooper treatment on cable news.
But it was hard to ignore Irma’s blast through the Caribbean from the moment it unleashed its record-breaking winds—Category 5 gales of 185 miles per hour—on the Leeward Islands six days before the storm arrived at the Florida Keys.
The Keys no doubt took a brutal hit. But it might have been worse had Irma not been reduced to Category 3 while marauding over the north coast of Cuba, where it turned rickety provincial housing into kindling, flooded Havana with 25-foot storm surge and left at least 10 people dead.
In all, Irma killed at least 43 people in the Caribbean as it moved like an outsized bowling ball down a lane whose pins included the island nations and territories of Antigua & Barbuda, St. Martin, Anguilla, the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, the Turks & Caicos, the Bahamas and finally Cuba.
The damage was epic. Islands like St. Thomas were virtually wiped off the map. On the island of Barbuda—the first hit—99 percent of the buildings were destroyed. Thankfully, if not miraculously, only one person died there; but right now Barbuda is uninhabited for the first time in three centuries.
The damage was epic. Islands like St. Thomas were virtually wiped off the map.
“I didn’t know if my mother and father and brother were alive until they arrived here three days later,” Antigua resident Lemwell John told me by phone about his Barbuda family, whose house was obliterated. “What they told me was devastating.”
Last year, when Hurricane Matthew destroyed swaths of Haiti, Cuba and the Bahamas, news of the devastation did not last long on U.S. and European front pages. But Irma may be different. A big reason is the breadth of the wreckage. The United Nations estimates Irma’s Caribbean damage to be a remarkable $10 billion.
As a result, French President Emmanuel Macron even visited the French territorial island of St. Martin to mount a recovery effort. The head of the Caribbean’s Roman Catholic bishops, Gabriel Malzaire of Dominica, urged the International Monetary Fund to let the islands suspend debt payments.
Americans seem to have bonded with their Caribbean neighbors during Irma.
But there are other factors. Americans seem to have bonded with their Caribbean neighbors during Irma. They took notice early on when Irma was declared the most powerful Atlantic hurricane on record. Then they did something they rarely do: They watched it move across the Caribbean, becoming familiar with obscure islands as it approached Florida.
That awareness was further heightened as Irma’s Caribbean rampage affected a number of international celebrities—like British billionaire Richard Branson, whose private luxury islet in the British Virgin Islands, Necker Island, was walloped as he vacationed there.
Mr. Branson is now calling for a “Marshall Plan” of international recovery aid for the Caribbean. He is also urging more awareness of the region’s oft-overlooked economic importance, particularly to the global tourism industry, as well as the destructive effects of human-driven climate change wrought by developed nations on the basin, which experts say include fiercer hurricanes.
As for Irma’s impact on the developed turf of Florida and the Southeastern United States, it was far less catastrophic than what would have been expected of the Category 5 blow predicted early on. In fact, the most alarming story was the deaths of eight elderly nursing home residents in Hollywood, Fla., north of Miami. Administrators there failed to protect the residents from the suffocating heat after Irma knocked out the facility’s power.
It was the sort of inexcusable tragedy Americans smugly associate with poorer developing countries. Like those in the Caribbean.