Hurricane Irma causes unprecedented devastation and severe economic damage

15 September 2017

As Hurricane Irma dissipates, it has become clear that the Caribbean nations directly struck by the storm are likely to take a number of years to fully recover.
The Category 5 hurricane, among the most powerful and longest lasting Atlantic hurricanes in history, raged through parts of the Caribbean from early on September 6 to late on September 10, causing at least 43 deaths and the widespread destruction of homes and critical infrastructure.

Particularly badly hit were a number of countries close to the eye of the storm where wind speeds of between 130 and 185mph were recorded. These included the British Virgin Islands, parts of the United States Virgin Islands, both the Dutch and French sides of St Maarten/St Martin, and the island of Barbuda, which was made virtually uninhabitable. Much of Cuba’s north-east coast, and some its central provinces and provincial cities were also severely damaged.

The overall death toll is expected to rise as in St Maarten where more than 90% of buildings are damaged with the Dutch Red Cross saying that as many as 200 people remain listed as missing.

Other nations reporting significant direct or indirect hurricane damage included Anguilla; St Barthelemy; St Thomas and St John in the US Virgin Islands; the low-lying Turks and Caicos Islands; and the southern end of the Bahamas chain of islands.

The size and intensity of the Hurricane Irma was such that many countries away from its epicentre also experienced damaging storm surges and extended periods of heavy rainfall.

These included Puerto Rico, the North of the Dominican Republic and the northern tip of Haiti.

Although estimates vary as to the cost of repair, the German-based Centre for Disaster Management and Risk Reduction Technology (CEDIM) said that its modelling indicated that the region, excluding Cuba, will likely experience absolute losses of at least US$10bn. CEDIM said that its analysis indicated Hurricane Irma had been the most damaging recorded Caribbean storm of all time. Its report, which provides an island-by-island breakdown and costings excluding Cuba, can be found at

Separately, the French state-owned reinsurer CCR put the estimated insured damage at €1.2bn for St Barths and French St Martin alone. The Antigua government has said that rebuilding Barbuda would cost around US$300m.

Meanwhile, the Caribbean Development Bank-linked Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF)—a multi-country risk pool which makes payments upon the occurrence of a triggering event such as hurricanes and excess rainfall—is already in the process of issuing a record pay-out to the governments of Antigua & Barbuda (US$6.8 million), Anguilla (US$6.5 million), St. Kitts & Nevis (US$2.3 million), the Turks & Caicos Islands (US$13.6 million), Haiti (US$162,000), and The Bahamas (US$234,000). The total US$29.6 million payment to be issued over the coming 14 days, is by far the largest ever pay-out issued by the CCRIF, which has made 22 payments to 10 member governments since 2007, totalling approximately US$69 million.

Tourism severely impacted
Although some countries like Cuba and Anguilla say they will be open for business by the winter season, most industry experts believe that it will be next spring or summer at the earliest before tourism related infrastructure and damaged properties can be fully repaired and are able to fully open. It will also take time for and the natural environment around tourist facilities to grow back or be fully restored. The consequent impact in terms of employment, loss of visitor tax revenue and foreign exchange is expected to be substantial.

Throughout Irma’s passage the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) and the Caribbean Tourism Organisation published updates. The current state of hotel properties in or near the hurricane’s path can be found at

While some visitor source countries such as Canada airlifted visitors out before the storm struck, and provided consular support and flights after the event, others were criticised for their slow response.

Launching a joint CHTA/CTO recovery fund for the industry, Karolin Troubetzkoy, President of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) said, “Tourism is the quickest way to rebound an economy, put people back to work and generate badly needed tax revenues to support reconstruction”.

“By working together, we should be able to build a better and more resilient sector …. The Recovery Fund will help us as we gather together to marshal investment support for the most severely affected areas and to help hoteliers and their staff get back to business,” she said.

She also stressed the importance of strengthening the resilience of the sector and the industry’s aim to have affected areas of the Caribbean ready to receive tourists by the spring and summer seasons of 2018, if not sooner. “Our nations and territories are dependent on tourism and they will need help to bounce back.”

This is an extract from the Caribbean Council’s leading weekly editorially independent publication, Caribbean Insight, which provides in depth information on current economic, political and commercial developments in the Caribbean and news on events in Europe and the US that affect the region. Business people, academics, and those with a general interest in the Caribbean find it an invaluable tool for developing and maintaining knowledge and providing an insight into political, economic and commercial events in the region.

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Photo Credit: Antti Lipponen, ‘Hurricane Irma 2017 09 07’,, Flickr