NEW YORK – From parties where the price of admission is a donation, to fundraising drives and online wish lists for collecting needed supplies, West Indian communities around the United States are stepping up to get help for the islands of the Caribbean ravaged by the wind and water of Hurricane Irma, including those in places in the southern United States that were hit hard themselves.
The storm, the most powerful ever recorded in the open Atlantic, wreaked havoc in parts of the region – Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla and St. Martin, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos, the Bahamas and parts of Cuba – leaving more than three dozen people dead and turning some islands more commonly thought of as vacation paradises into devastated landscapes. There was no respite for the Caribbean, either, as Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico on Wednesday with heavy winds and rains and has caused at least 10 deaths across the Caribbean.
“I’ve been an emotional basket-case because you want to do everything for everyone,” said Nicole Bertrand Nixon, 39, who lives in Rockville, Maryland, but grew up in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and whose parents still live there. She was part of efforts to gather toiletries and other items for an initial collection of necessary supplies and spread word about organizations people can support with their dollars.
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The desire to help has brought together people who trace their roots all over the Caribbean, not just from the affected islands, said Jean Alexander, executive director of the Caribbean American Center of New York, a social service agency in Brooklyn. There are almost 3 million people claiming West Indian ancestry in the United States, according to the U.S. Census.
“It’s an interest of anyone who lives in the Caribbean,” said Alexander, who hails from Trinidad and Tobago. “I haven’t heard of anybody not taking this seriously.”
Nixon agreed, saying that those who come from the Caribbean understand that those whose home countries weren’t affected as much this time around could be hit in another storm. “Wherever we can help, we do,” she said, “because we know our time will come.”
VIDEO: Hurricane Irma cuts swath of destruction in Caribbean
That extends to Caribbean Americans who are dealing with the fallout of Irma themselves.
In South Florida, Caribbean communities organizing relief efforts for the islands found themselves targeted by the same powerful hurricane.
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Godwin Carty, president of the Anguilla Progressive Association of New-Florida branch, has been collecting generators, canned food, baby supplies, macaroni, rice, flour, cleaning supplies such as mops and disinfectants and equipment to help secure tarps atop buildings whose roofs blew away. Caribbean diaspora associations in New York and New Jersey were quickly able to start collecting and shipping relief supplies, but South Florida communities had to put those activities on hold to wait out the storm and assess their own damage, Carty said.
His parents and siblings in Anguilla survived, but they lost their roof and expect to be without power for a long time – which puts his two days without power in the Miami area into perspective, Carty said.
Desiree Barnes, president of the Antigua and Barbuda Association of South Florida, said Irma interrupted plans to collect donations, but community members in South Florida still donated money to relief efforts, even though they were rushing to buy plywood or evacuate.
“Before Irma hit, we were afraid and we were tense for our immediate families here, but they still wanted to give something. They were thinking of the other people who were in a worse situation,” Barnes said.
The Caribbean Association of Georgia began mobilizing and making plans to help before the storm even hit the Caribbean, association president Chris Scott said in a phone interview.
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The planning continued even as she lost power when Irma’s remnants swept through Georgia. But she drew strength from the memory of people she’s visited in the Caribbean on mission trips in the wake of other natural disasters.
“I had to say, ‘You know what, not having lights is not a big deal, so get it together,”‘ she said with a chuckle. “Not until you’ve seen the way other people have to live do you really appreciate what you have.”
The group has partnered with a local church where about a third of the members have Caribbean roots and a shipping company that will send supplies, including non-perishable food, first aid supplies, clothing and shoes.
VIDEO: Hurricane Irma leaves a trial of destruction in the Caribbean
The association plans to send its first shipment, expected to include at least 12 large barrels of suppliesab, Scott said. They’re working with a group on the ground in Antigua that will help get the shipment to people who were affected when the storm battered neighbouring Barbuda.
In Boston, a community group for residents of Antigua and Barbuda is working with the island nation’s consulate in New York to raise money and gather donations.
Dion Irish, chairman of the Boston Election Commission and a native of Antigua, says the Wadadli Cultural Association has been collecting money for the consulate’s hurricane relief fund, as well as the country’s Red Cross. It’s also been collecting non-perishable goods and has set up three drop off locations in the city, including at a local zoo, church and another community group’s office. They plan to end the drive Sept. 23.
“We’ve seen a tremendous outpouring of support from all our residents from the different Caribbean islands,” Irish said. “So many islands were impacted so everyone is providing mutual support.”
Associated Press writers Jennifer Kay in Miami, Kate Brumback in Atlanta and Philip Marcelo in Boston contributed to this report.