How Do Caribbean Women Start Over After Hurricanes Irma and Maria?

I was in the UK when Hurricane Irma hit the Caribbean. It was distressing to receive messages of roofs being blown off, my parents hiding in a bathroom, hearing of unexpected deaths in the aftermath. So much loss. So much devastation.

I have lived or visited most of the Eastern Caribbean islands hit by Irma and Hurricane Maria two weeks later. It was like watching someone take a match to all of your memories and possessions. A friend shared the feeling of loss watching years of work destroyed across the region he loves so well.

Satellite image of Hurricane Irma on the morning of September 6, 2017.

Having worked with women in business across the region for more than 20 years now, the stories are new yet familiar to me as I have had to start over more times than I care to count due to migration, divorce and economic hardships. Never have I had so many people I know lose so much all at one time. Where do you put your energy, time and money? What are the right words or actions to take when the women you care about are hurting in every area of their lives?

Caribbean women are known to be resilient and stoic. We don’t waste time on tears when there is work to be done. We don’t look around to see if there is a man nearby to ask for a help, we get it done.

There has always been something we can ‘tun hand and make fashion’ as my mother would say. Where do you begin when your house is gone, when your place of business or the land you farmed is destroyed? Who do you sell to when there are no tourists coming to your country?

How do you ask for help when you have only ever depended on yourself?

The hurricanes present new opportunities if we can choose to see this time as such.

Before we even start to discuss how we are going to make money, we have to re-calibrate how we are going to navigate our emotional and mental health in this post Irma and Maria Caribbean.
Be Thankful You Are Alive. Some people are dealing with guilt? Some are second-guessing every decision they’ve ever made. Don’t beat yourself up. Show yourself some love. Take a few moments daily to say thank you to God. Notice that the mountains are turning green again.
Get a Physical Check up. We are notorious for ignoring our aches and pains, talking ourselves out doctor’s visits or even drinking enough water. Find out the state of your body so you can make the best decisions about your health. You will need your body in peak condition to build a new life.
Get Registered. Don’t miss out on benefits which are becoming available for victims of the storms. Find out where to register and do so. You may want to keep the true state of your finances private but you need to be open and tell the truth so you can get the help you need. This can help you get housing materials, financial compensation depending on your industry or grants for restarting your business. Some processes may not have been set up yet but pay attention and be ready to sign up once they do. You do not have to believe or continue to act like you need to rebuild alone.
It is the end of one season but the beginning of new. Many have received opportunities to move to other islands or countries because of the loss at home. Putting the education of children first, has helped women who never considered leaving to do so. Don’t see moving as a sign of your personal failure or weakness. It is what you have always done, put your children’s future first. When your children are comfortable in the new space it makes it easier for mothers to relax. However, your children settling in is dependent on how you are handling the space. If you were sleeping on the floor and happy about it, children are able to adjust knowing that YOU are their safe space.

Moving to a New Country? If you were able to salvage photos or other mementos, put them in a a place where you can celebrate the life you had at home. Find your closest Caribbean market or restaurant and stock up on your curries, plantains, green bananas. When you can eat foods you would regularly have at home, it helps to make adjusting easier. Connect with the local cultural association from your home country. If one does not exist, this is something you can initiate to keep everyone connected.

Give Yourself Time. Recovery always takes longer than we think it will. You may think you just need a breather for a few months before you are back to your ‘I am Every Woman and I Got This’ mode. Don’t rush it. The recovery in the islands will take years. There is no reason to set yourself unrealistic targets. Ask your family, friends who have offered to assist you with housing, if they are okay with you and your children living with them for six months to a year or longer. Accept the donations and support given.

Say No to Exploitation. No one enjoys being uncomfortable and women and children are especially vulnerable to exploitation during this season. The offer the man or woman may be given could look like it solves an immediate need but what do you need to compromise to get it. Do not put the safety of your children or yourself in jeopardy because you want instant relief from the pain.

Journal – Blog – Talk About It. Under no circumstances do you try to work through this alone. In the absence of another human you believe you can tell everything, talk to Jesus. Keep a journal to note the highs and lows. It will be a good way to chart your progress. Consider using your social media or website to blog about your recovery journey.

Dream. I am a big believer in the power of dreams. Where do you see yourself in the new season you are in? What new opportunities exist for you and your business because you are in a new place/country? Write down your dreams. Can you build out a recovery strategy that centers on your dreams? Go for it!

There is no easy fix for recovering after the kind of devastation we are seeing across the Caribbean. We see women fleeing violence in other nations of the world but it has never been the reality for most of the region on this scale. This is new. No one will have all the answers but if we lean on each other we will get through it.

Nerissa Golden is a writer and media strategist who works with entrepreneurs and corporations to tell their stories.