Irma’s Carribean rage blew fear into Union City woman’s heart

  • Shelia M. Poole
  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
12:14 p.m Monday, Sept. 18, 2017 Atlanta Life
Candida Gibson and her sister, Wendy, on Barbuda. CONTRIBUTED

Candida Gibson listened in disbelief as meteorologists warned that Hurricane Irma had zeroed in on her native Barbuda, packing 185 mph winds.

She tracked the monster storm’s path on television and an Antiguan news outlet on the internet. Tears welled up in her eyes as she thought about her parents, other relatives and friends who still lived in the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda.

She and her brothers and sisters had begged her mother to flee to Antigua, the sister island, which is a short plane or ferry ride away, but she refused. After all, she had weathered hurricanes before. She would just go to her former sister-in-law’s house and hunker down there. The home, like many others in Barbuda, was reinforced with concrete walls and could withstand even Irma, she thought.

“It was very emotional,” said Gibson, a 43-year-old paralegal from Union City , who moved to the United States in 1996 from Antigua, where she attended school and spent breaks with her parents in Barbuda. “I knew it would be devastating. They’d been in Category 4 storms before, but they had never sustained a Category 5 before.”

She had reason to be worried. The island is tiny with a population of roughly 1,700. So small and close-knit that Gibson knew or was related to just about everyone there.

“My concern was that Barbuda is so flat,” said Gibson, the mother of two daughters. “Waves coming across that island could just wash away people and everything in its path.”

Gibson had lived through hurricanes before.

“I recall every one,” she said. “We Caribbean people don’t take hurricanes for granted. When we hear that a hurricane is coming, we take precautions. We start preparing the house. We get plywood to protect the windows and doors. Once the storm starts, we go inside and we don’t come out again until it’s over.”

Unlike others “we realize this is not a time to try to be a superhero,” she said. “We’re not going to go outside in a storm and take pictures. We aren’t going to do selfies on the beach.”

She was in touch with her siblings throughout the storm off and on. She spoke with her 68-year-old mom last at about 12:20 a.m. Wednesday. Her mother said the wind was really strong. The connection was spotty. She called back a couple of hours later. Nothing. She couldn’t get through. The phone went straight to voicemail.

She was sick to her stomach.

Gibson reached out to relatives in Antigua. They didn’t know much either.

Eventually, she heard they were all right. Amazingly, only one person died in Barbuda. Her mother said they had spent hours on the floor on mattresses.

They were safe, but overall, the news was bad.

Reports indicate that 95 percent of the island’s structures have been damaged or destroyed. Barbuda is about 62 square miles. Hurricane Irma was more than 360 miles . The eye of the storm was bigger than the island itself.

It’s so bad that according to USA Today, all its residents have been evacuated.

Antigua and Barbuda Ambassador Ronald Sanders called Irma “mericiless.” In the USA Today article he said, “This was a huge monster. The island and the people on the island had absolutely no chance.”

Gibson said people had no fresh water or electricity. Barbuda had a healthy animal population that included birds, horses, goats, deer, wild pigs, duck and guinea fowl. With so many of the animals wiped out or standing in water, health officials are worried about the spread of disease.

About 2,000 people from the two-island nation live in Georgia, according Uldeen Lee, president of the Antigua and Barbuda Association of Georgia, which has about 40 active members.

“Luckily, Barbdua was not a heavily popular island,” she said. It’s going to take quite a qhile to rebuild. Apart from home, homes, government offices, schools, the post office were also damaged.”

The association plans to hold a fundraiser on Nov. 11 at the Atlanta Marriott Century Center hotel. Proceeds will go to rebuilding Barbuda.

Gibson’s aunt told her later that the window had blown out, sounding like a bomb exploded. When it wasn’t safe in the living room, everyone took shelter in a bathroom. Her father , 70,was evacuated to Antigua where it was discovered that he’d suffered a stroke, apparently during the hurricane.

While she’s relieved, the experience has made Gibson even more determined to move back to Barbuda, perhaps sooner rather than later. She and her daughters plan to go there over the Thanksgiving holidays.

Until Irma, the island was not widely known. It was a favorite vacation spot of Princess Diana’s and there is even a beach named after her.

“Barbuda is my heart,” she said.

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