The Washington Diplomat / October 2004
By Larry Luxner
WASHINGTON — It was the killer storm Grenadians had dreaded for years — but the devastation left by Hurricane Ivan was worse than anyone could have imagined.
"Our island is destroyed in a way that it is unprecedented," said Grenada's ambassador to the United States, Denis Antoine. "Recovery will be long, difficult and painful. And without help, it'll be impossible."
The statistics are staggering: at least 39 confirmed deaths, over 300 injured and untold thousands homeless out of a total population of just under 100,000. Ivan damaged or destroyed 90% of all structures on Grenada. At the moment, 5,000 people are still living in 195 shelters, and that's just in the island's southern half.
"From here, my role is to try and mobilize assistance and bring relief to Grenada in this emergency," Antoine told the Washington Diplomat. "Immediately after the storm, the electric and water utilities were down, and electricity may not return to normal for many years."
During the storm, which hit on the afternoon of Sept. 8, Antoine and his staff maintained a long-distance vigil at the tiny Grenadian Embassy just off Washington's Dupont Circle, as Hurricane Ivan's eye approached and then crossed directly over Grenada's quaint, historic capital, St. George's.
"We were watching the warnings, and at 3 p.m., I placed a call to Grenada, and was told that things are cool, the sun is shining," he said. "As usual, Grenadians had heard warnings before and then nothing happened, so there could have been a certain degree of complacency.
"But as the storm ensued, we got word that things were getting bad. Suddenly, our calls were being dropped. You could have felt the disaster beginning. In the heat of the storm, we were able to get through to two people with cellphones, one in the south and one in St. Andrews. They told us that everything was dark and that they didn't know what was going on outside their immediate area."
When it was all over, virtually every school and church in St. George's had been destroyed, along with the national police headquarters. Antoine's home in the parish of St. Andrews had its roof blown off by Ivan's 120 mph winds, while Prime Minister Keith Mitchell's house was completely demolished.
Antoine's family was not injured, though because all fixed phone lines are still down, he hasn't been able to talk with them, only indirectly through neighbors with cellphones.
"Grenada has always been spared from direct hits by hurricanes because of our location," he said. "We're 12º north of the Equator, which puts us south of the hurricane belt. But this hurricane fooled a lot of people. Suddenly, instead of going east, it went west."
Damage to Grenada's economy will undoubtedly run into the billions of dollars, though exactly how much won't be known until the World Bank and other bodies carry out their impact assessment.
One of the smallest nations in the Western Hemisphere, 133-square-mile Grenada was discovered by Columbus in 1498 and settled by the French in 1650. After oscillating between French and British rule for 130 years, it was ceded to Great Britain in 1783, finally achieving independence in 1974.
Besides being the world's second-largest exporter of nutmegs after Indonesia, Grenada's chief claim to fame is its 1979 Cuban-backed Marxist coup that toppled Prime Minister Eric Gairy and brought Maurice Bishop to power, and Bishop's 1983 execution by supporters of a radical Communist faction. That led to President Reagan's famous invasion, the re-establishment of democracy in Grenada and eventual passage of the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) to prop up the region's shaky economies and stem Cuba's influence in the region.
Yet despite CBI benefits and years of European preferential quotas for its bananas, this tourist paradise with lush rainforests and white-sand beaches is still a poor country whose per-capita income hovers around $2,300.
Interestingly, Antoine's connections with Washington predate his political career. Upon finishing high school, Antoine left Grenada to attend the University of the District of Columbia, as well as the District of Columbia Teachers College and National Louis University in Virginia, where he earned a master's degree in organizational management.
After serving as charge d'affairs at the Grenadian Embassy from 1986 to 1991, Antoine got a job with the D.C. government as a program specialist, and in 1992 became an education supervisor with D.C. Public Schools — a job he held until June 1995, when he was lured back to run the embassy by Mitchell, who himself had attended and later taught math at Washington's Howard University.
Antoine has now been Grenada's envoy to the United States for nine years, which makes him one of the longest-serving diplomats in Washington. In a 1997 interview with the Diplomat, Antoine complained that one of his biggest problems was getting noticed in a town full of ambassadors of much bigger and more important countries.
The UN's 2004 Human Development Index ranks Grenada 93rd in the world in terms of quality of life, just ahead of China but way behind other Caribbean nations such as Barbados, Bahamas, Cuba, Trinidad & Tobago, Antigua & Barbuda, St. Lucia, Jamaica and St. Vincent.
Even before Ivan, Grenada was in an especially difficult position due to the recent suspension of banana exports to Great Britain, its chief customer. The subsequent loss of European Union banana quotas at the insistence of the Clinton administration — which had argued that such preferences discriminated against Latin American banana exporters — only made things worse for Grenada.
Now, the nutmeg industry is completely wiped out by Ivan. The storm also crippled 100% of Grenada's rum and banana exports, while tourism, the island's chief source of foreign exchange, has been reduced to rubble.
"The hotel industry was badly hit. Most of the hotels were damaged, and parts of buildings were totally torn apart," said Antoine. "The whole industry is in peril. The cruise-ship port is devastated. Our port has to be overhauled and repositioned to receive cruise ships."
Hurricane Ivan has also inflicted a serious psychological blow to the island, made worse by incidents of looting and violence immediately after the storm.
"There was a serious outbreak of looting, which necessitated calling in armed forces from Trinidad and Barbados. It got to the point of lawlessness in Grenada, and for a period we had to stop the flow of relief from abroad in order to take charge of the port."
Grenada's Point Salines International Airport has since reopened for emergency traffic, but it's unclear when regular flights will resume from the United States. Until Ivan's destruction, US Airways was flying nonstop from Philadelphia to Grenada, while BWIA flew from Washington's Dulles to Grenada via Trinidad, and Air Jamaica offered five flights a week directly from Montego Bay.
But "even if curiosity seekers visit Grenada now, there's no place to put them," said the ambassador.
In light of the devastation, Antoine plans to lobby the U.S. government to forgive Grenada about $48 million worth of debt. He's also asking the U.S. Agency for International Development for immediate assistance, and says Secretary of State Colin Powell has personally reassured him that help will be forthcoming.
Antoine is also closely monitoring a bill before Congress that would soften some of the regulatory requirements associated with investing in the Caribbean. The measure is sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and delegate Donna Christian-Christiansen of the Virgin Islands.
"An impact assessment is critically needed to determine our way forward," he said. "After that, the corporate world and international financial institutions must show some compassion and recognize that Grenada will need debt relief. We hope that Coca-Cola, Texaco, Shell and other companies present in Grenada will help us. The scope of damage is so bad that the size of Grenada can make it a good case for the world community to rally behind us."
Another potential source of help is the Grenadian diaspora. Some 80,000 Grenada nationals live in the United States, another 25,000 in Great Britain and 20,000 in Canada. Assistance could also come from Cuban President Fidel Castro, whose friendship with Mitchell has been a source of irritiation for Washington in the past.
But none of that matters now, says Antoine.
"For us, all political lines have been obliterated. This is a life-or-death situation for Grenada, and our recovery effort will rely heavily on the United States and the Grenadian diaspora," he said. "Trinidad and Tobago has come forward. So has Barbados and the Cubans, in spite of the fact they were hit too. We have received so much solidarity from the region. This is a Caribbean problem."
And one that's not likely to go away, given all the talk about global warming and their apparent link to hurricanes' growing ferocity.
Meanwhile, Antoine is preoccupied with raising money to help Grenada rebuild. In the weeks since Ivan's destruction, he's appeared on ABC, Fox News Channel, CBS and CNN. He's also solicited help from Washington's African-American community and has spearheaded the embassy's Grenada Hurricane Relief Fund.
"Donations are very much the way to go at this time," he said. "We hope the generosity will exceed our expectations."