On the ground in the devastated island of Barbuda

Workers helping with cleanup approach the island of Barbuda on Sept. 24. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

The homes around me had no doors and no windows. Walking down the streets of Codrington, the one and only town on the island of Barbuda, it felt as though a nuclear bomb had been dropped just a few days ago.

In the eerie silence of Codrington, as I was photographing the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, I heard a cat crying. When I approached, it started rubbing itself against my leg. I could tell it was hungry. A second cat appeared from the rubble of a house. And then a third. They were joined by two dogs, all of them following me as I walked the streets of the devastated town. It felt as though these animals were desperate to find their owner or just anyone who would pay attention to and feed them.

I had a pack of beef jerky and a bottle of water. I poured some water for them and started tearing off little pieces of beef jerky for these five new companions. Growing up in Iraq, I would often see children kicking stray dogs and throwing rocks at cats. I never understood why. I have always had an affection for animals. On Barbuda, there wasn’t much I could do. I had to keep working, and it broke my heart.

Their island homes wiped away in the hurricanes, Caribbean residents wonder: Should we go back?

I joined The Washington Post earlier this year as a staff photographer, and this was my first foreign assignment. I landed in Antigua two days earlier. Getting out of the airport, I expected to see signs of destruction, but Antigua had been spared the worst. It looked like what you’d imagine a tropical island looks like. People were selling fruit and coconut water on the side of the road. It felt like paradise on earth.

But for many people, it wasn’t. For thousands of Barbudans, Antigua was a safe place after what they had been through just a few days ago. Their island had suffered the full force of Hurricane Irma. At the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, I met with some of these evacuees — entire families who were just waiting to go back and assess what was left of their homes. For some, starting a new life in Antigua was their only hope.

The next day, Sept. 24, I was on the Michael Jackson’s Thriller, a high-speed boat that took me and Anthony Faiola, The Post’s South America/Caribbean bureau chief, to Barbuda to see the destruction for ourselves with a local medical and sanitation group. As we got closer to the island, a jewel in the Caribbean Sea, everything felt calm. No one said a word as we disembarked and took in what was in front of us.

I didn’t know where to start or what to photograph first. Everything was destroyed.

Following Jenita and Peter Cuffy, a Barbudan couple working with the Red Cross, we looked for their house. I can only imagine what they felt as they walked their streets, seeing their neighbors’ houses gone. It probably felt the same as when I saw the televised destruction of my home country years ago.

Thankfully, their house was spared the worst. As she gathered a few of their belongings, Jenita Cuffy told me how proud she was of her island and how, even after everything had been reduced to rubble, many of her friends were ready to come back and rebuild. She’s not so sure, though. “It’s just: Where do you start?” she asked.

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