The Donkey Sanctuary dispatched a team to Barbuda to ensure the welfare of the island’s feral donkeys in the wake of Hurricane Irma, which risk hindering the rebuilding efforts by straying onto the local airport runway.

In the fourth part of his report from the island, Simon Pope, Rapid Response and Campaigns Manager at The Donkey Sanctuary reveals how the damage has affected donkeys and hears from locals caught up in the destruction.

Wednesday 4 October 2018

“An inspection of the airport fence confirmed what we had guessed – not an inch of it was standing, having been comprehensively flattened by the storm. The fact that it was pretty flimsy and rusting hadn’t helped prolong its life, but it meant that donkeys and horses for miles around had been able to wander in and adopt the airport as their own private playground and restaurant.

As we were packing up to go, two friendly firemen drove up and introduced themselves. A small plane was about to land and they needed to check the runway for any debris that might have blown onto it. Not much of anything was working at the airport – the runway lights, which were tough, short columns set into the grass border, had all been ripped out of the ground. There were twisted pieces of metal, bits of roofs and planks with huge nails in them, as well as clothes, shoes and curtains. Just about everything had been scattered around the runway perimeter.

The runway itself was scarred and marked by the debris, although the potholes had been repaired temporarily. Five huge metal containers (the sort you see on ships) had been sitting beside the runway before Irma struck and now no-one could find them. We actually stumbled across one over half a mile away and it had only been stopped because it got wrapped round an obstinate tree.

The firemen were very aware of the donkey issue at the airport, but took it in their stride. Before each plane came in or took off, they drove round the runway in a car, the simple act of which scared the donkeys away. Neither the firemen nor the donkeys saw it as a big deal, although the former were quite interested in short term solutions to dissuade the donkeys and horses from congregating there. We talked about crow scarers and klaxons and they were very open to trying them out. Another good connection made.

We loaded up our equipment, and made our way back to the harbour. It wasn’t a long walk, but it took us to part of the town that seemed to have been most badly affected by the hurricane. A huge truck had been blown over on its side and into someone’s front garden. A herd of goats had taken over someone’s lounge and were variously sleeping on the sofa or absent-mindedly eating it. It was eerily quiet, broken only by the banging of loose tin roofs.

Out of every house spilled the private, personal things that made up the lives of their inhabitants and I felt uncomfortable looking at it, like some voyeuristic snoop. But it felt like I was looking at the end of the world as one of the few people still standing, an unnerving but utterly extraordinary feeling.

Very slowly, Barbudans are returning to their homes. The government lifted the evacuation order last week but people are trickling back, not flooding. They are a proud, resilient people, who see themselves as quite different from their neighbours in Antigua. A small group of them, congregated around some tables, called me over to say hello.

“We knew it was coming,” they said. “It took its time, and then it took off. You just can’t imagine what it was like. We were so scared. We’d been hiding under the sink in the kitchen, but once that went we just held onto each other because there was nothing else to hold onto.”

The hurricane was so powerful that some meteorologists say there should be a rethink on how storm levels are calculated. There are five categories of storm strength and Irma was a five. By way of comparison, the 1987 storm that caused such havoc in the UK had an average wind speed of 50 mph and gusts up to 115 mph. Irma meanwhile registered average 185mph winds with gusts of up to 225 mph.

So Irma has now raised the bar, so to speak, forcing the creation of two new categories above five. It just goes the show the sheer magnitude of what the island’s inhabitants were faced with and why we felt compelled to lend our support.”