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Undaunted by Irma

Barbuda after Hurricane Irma
Barbuda's residents recover after Hurricane Irma.

In late September, when Professor Sophia Perdikaris (GC/Brooklyn, Anthropology) returned to the island of Barbuda after it was devastated by Hurricane Irma, she went immediately to the Graduate Center’s Barbuda Research Complex (BRC), which she directs.

Although the BRC’s main building was still standing, it had lost part of its roof to the storm. Inside stood a foot of brackish water, with sewage and rotting debris. One of the center’s storage sheds had been blown two blocks away, landing in front of the island’s post office. The researchers’ weather station was wreckage, and the children’s museum was destroyed by flooding. The history museum, although mostly intact, was being used as a dormitory by Waitt Foundation staff members who were assisting in the island clean up and assessing the sea life and reef damage surrounding the island.
Despite the damage to the place where Perdikaris has dedicated the last 12 years of her career — studying the effects of climate change, and helping Barbuda’s 1,800 citizens make the best choices for their future — she was relieved, and hopeful.
“The destruction is just material,” she said. “The spirit of the people is very much alive. When you look beyond the debris, you see the flowers are blooming and the birds are chirping. I choose to take this as a sign of life and regeneration.”

Graduate Center Professor Sophia Perdikaris with CUNY students in Barbuda
Sunnier days: Professor Sophia Perdikaris (third from right) with CUNY students in Barbuda in 2013

Perdikaris, an archaeologist who studies the interaction between humans and the environment, came to the island after a previous storm, 1998’s Hurricane Georges, unearthed a human skeleton that dates to 450 CE. Her subsequent excavation of the area in which it was found pushed back estimates of the arrival of Saladoid peoples in this part of the Lesser Antilles by more than 300 years.

She co-founded the Human Ecodynamics Research Center at GC in 2012 as a cross-disciplinary center in which Western scientists and Barbudan colleagues could work together on projects related to climate change and sustainability. As one of their projects, researchers built an aquaponics facility where fish and plants were farmed in tandem. The project was aimed at addressing the need for sustainable, alternative sources of fish on an island that has experienced firsthand the effects of climate change—including unpredictable rainfall, salinity in the soil, erosion, and the dying off of coral reefs. 

All of the aquaponics equipment was destroyed by the hurricane—underscoring, as if that were needed, the need for climate change to be taken seriously. “Barbuda is just the canary in the coal mine,” Perdikaris said. “We’ll all feel this eventually. We share this planet together.”

Though Perdikaris plans to rebuild, she is in the very early stages of assessment, clearing, and cleaning. BRC’s roof has a temporary patch and she is seeking government permission to bring in construction materials for repairs and to fence the station—a necessity, given that pigs are running wild on the island and creating hazards on the station’s grounds. 

But now that the island’s state of emergency has been lifted, she hopes that Barbuda’s residents, who are known for their resilience, will be able to return. As the mural painted by local children at the station declares: The seas will rise, Barbuda will survive. “When they go home, they will pick up the pieces,” Perdikaris said. “They’ve done so time and over again.” People have lived on Barbuda for over 5,000 years and have weathered many storms. “When you live in an area with extreme events, you learn to cope,” she said. “It’s not about abandoning a place. It’s about going back.

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Barbuda's residents return home.
Barbuda's residents return home.

“What is home? It is identity. It is ethnicity. A sense of place. It’s a component of who we are. From the outside, it’s very easy to say, ‘Resettle, move on.’ But that means leaving your history, your connection to your ancestors, the way you’ve learned to adapt and survive. Relocation and migration are the last resort.” 

It never occurred to her to halt her research on the island. “When the going gets tough, that’s not when scientists go running,” she said. “That’s when you have to stay. Because we are part of the community.”

In the wake of so many hurricanes, it is important to remember those communities that lack the resources to rebuild, Perdikaris says. “A political boundary is an artificial boundary,” she said. “Compassion and understanding and sensitivity shouldn’t end at the U.S. border. At the end of the day, we are not separate pieces. We are one.” 

Submitted on: OCT 11, 2017

Category: Anthropology | Faculty | General GC News