The syntax and language we use during natural disasters can have a huge impact, from communicating the severity of an approaching storm to post-disaster relief efforts, and the island of Barbuda is the latest example.
First, make no mistake: What Irma did to Barbuda was absolutely devastating. The tiny island that makes up part of the single nation of Antigua and Barbuda was slammed head-on by Hurricane Irma at its strongest, with maximum sustained winds of 185 mph and gusts that at times reached over 200 mph.
The hit was so direct, Irma so big, and Barbuda so small — at around 62 square miles — that the island fit completely in Irma’s eye.
Prime Minister Gaston Browne has already surveyed the damage, saying that roughly 95 percent of buildings on the island suffered damage, many being destroyed. Speaking to local media, Browne said, “The extent of damage in Barbuda is unprecedented.”
And the human devastation is still unknown: how many have died, how many have been hurt, making sure there are resources like clean water and food, medical supplies, etc.
According to Browne, half of the island’s 1,800 residents are now homeless. The full carnage is still being surveyed and Browne is talking about evacuating residents to Antigua ahead of Hurricane Jose, which may strike the island Saturday. As of Thursday afternoon, there was just one confirmed fatality with the number expected to rise.
But, Thursday morning, a few hyperbolic headlines managed to do the unthinkable in over-estimating the damage to the island. Particularly, the New York Post, whose headline screamed, “Hurricane Irma wipes tiny Caribbean island off the map.”
Barbuda still very much exists, though. Battered, bruised, and with long rebuilding ahead of it, but the suggestion that an entire island has been wiped away carries with it the implicit suggestion it’s done, there’s nothing to rebuild.
In a time when climate change is making very real changes to the globe’s landscapes, though, it’s important to make these differences clear. Not just for the sake of accuracy but to make sure that the general perception that’s passed around isn’t that this island — and its people — have ceased to exist.
If anything, these people will need the help and support of the international community now more than ever and that includes making sure the world is aware of their plight and recovery. Misleading hyperbole that so…