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The lasting mental impacts of Hurricane Irma

This story focuses on the psychological trauma that Barbudan John Mussington faced during and after the passage of category 5 hurricane, Irma in 2017. Mussington and his family, like many others, were forced to evacuate the island after Irma destroyed more than 80 per cent of the economy. He speaks about the mental impacts that disasters fueled by climate change can have on a person's well being.

A family album lay 39 miles away in Barbuda in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. It’s likely that this hard-covered book could have been swept away in the flood waters, or it could be trapped in a sturdy corner of the wooden house—who knows?

But wherever it is, one thing was certain, the thought occupied the mind of John Mussington as he sat in a makeshift shelter on the mainland of Antigua. His pictures held memories of a better time for him and his family, who were mandatorily evacuated as Hurricane Jose threatened to further destroy what was left of the home. After September 6, 2017, more than 1,500 people were displaced and were taken by boat to Antigua.

Even with all their annual, routine preparations of stocking up on canned foods, installing hurricane shelters, clearing debris, and battening up loose fixtures, they could not stop the destruction of Hurricane Irma. The weather system was an aberration from the storms or bad weather events experienced each year between the months of June and November in the Caribbean. The Category 5 hurricane packed winds of 185 mph, first making landfall in Barbuda at around 2 a.m. on Wednesday. The heavy rains, however, began the night before.

“In my mind, you knew something was coming,” Mussington remarked, explaining that the sign of coral bleaching from high surface temperatures the days before was one indication that the storm was approaching.

hurricane irma
Photo credit: John Mussington

“We are so versed, that we looked at latitude and longitude and distance and wind speed and so on. So, by looking at those things, you can get a good picture as to whether or not you’re going to be hit. So, the thing about Irma was that everything began to add up and so you know, you’re going to get hit by a storm and not only you’re going to get hit by a storm but by a massive storm as well”, Mussington said.

Damage assignments from hurricanes Irma and Maria, which were conducted by the World Bank Group, indicated that losses amounted to US$136.1 million.

But for Mussington, the most challenging part was not the cost of recovery or witnessing the state of the roads or other infrastructural damage, but the anxiety and high-stress levels experienced before and after the hurricane.

“You have to be looking out in terms of not just yourself, but a community as well; persons who might be vulnerable who need help is one big flurry of preparation and just getting yourself ready to be hit,” he remembered.

He rode out the storm in his house and for several hours had to set his own worries aside to comfort his family. “The management during the storm is a different ball game altogether,” he remarked with sardonic laughter.

Well before 10 pm electricity went out, leaving Mussington, his wife and children in darkness. “Imagine you pulling out your phone and it’s in aircraft mood” – knowing no one knows what is going on from the outside.”

“You were listening to the radio because there’s no more electricity and it’s just about monitoring and listening for when that beast begins to kick up.”

And begin it did, with a deafening howling and gusts of wind that swayed houses and caused debris to crash onto window shutters. “You feel the pressure build up in your ears. it’s kind of squeezing you …it’s one intense experience in terms of your senses”

hurricane irma

“And the thing that gets into your mind very quickly is that it is something you’re in the midst of, this phenomenon, it is huge, it is powerful and you are just a puny, tiny human being totally helpless, battened down in this shell of a house which is your only protection and you just sit there in awe of this massive force that is surrounding you.”

While Mussington kept his composure, other family members, like his second youngest daughter, became frantic and afraid. “At one point she just totally lost it and broke down. She was there and started crying and saying we’re dead,” he recalled. On the other hand, his grandson slept through everything. He attributes the varying reactions to the difference in personalities.

The rage of the hurricane would eventually subside, but now Mussington and his family had to face another hurdle—leaving their homes, community, and lifestyle behind to keep safe from Hurricane Jose.

“Nothing looked the same,” he remarked as he watched a boat carry him farther away from Barbuda.

He said while in Antigua, not knowing where his most cherished personal items were made him anxious. “Imagine you’re sitting in Antigua knowing you left your three dogs and a cat, knowing your bees are there somewhere, knowing your old pictures of your great, great grandparents and not knowing what is happening to them, not being able to see. You know the psychological stress that puts on you.”

“I can tell you, sitting in Antigua the worst things for me were to be sitting over there knowing your whole life and possessions and so on are 25 miles away and not knowing what in heaven’s name happened to them,” he recalled.

Am I crazy?

Residents of Barbuda who worked as teachers were soon assigned to teach classes in Antigua. But before they could begin giving instructions, the government made arrangements to have them evaluated at the Clarevue Psychiatric Facility.

Having just gone through a traumatic experience and having to go to a facility known for treating people with mental illness, Mussington thought he was headed to the “Crazy House” to have a conversation with a psychologist. “And you can imagine being sent up to Clarevue, the first time in my life I ever passed through Clarevue’s doors …. I didn’t even know the procedure [but] you had to check in at the gate and leave your I.D. … you can imagine the strange feeling and awkwardness”

“I say to myself Lord, me an wan crazy man now, look what me come to.”

hurricane irma

Fortunately, that would not be the only help he and others would receive. He commended organizations like the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and the Red Cross for providing additional psychosocial help.

“UNICEF, I know, definitely made an effort in terms of contacting a lot of experts and did what they needed to do in the school setting and Red Cross itself as well. Their engagement was done professionally and there were a number of surveys to gauge our mental and psychological state,” he explained. 

In the future, Mussington hopes that disaster situations can be handled much differently and in ways that not only account for physical damage but also for mental wellness.

“My answer is always the best psychological support that you give to persons just coming out of a disaster like the magnitude of Irma, is not to have them locked away somewhere else, you’re adding stress to them”, he said. “You assist them with their hour-by-hour, day-by-day recovery…hanging clothes to dry, picking up pictures…it makes you deal with the situation.” 

“It gives you the ability to know okay, I have survived 10 minutes, I survived half an hour. You can see around the corner what next needs to happen and you actually build yourself up psychologically by being able to cope and manage, not get into a frame of mind where you’re totally helpless”.

It is situations like Mussington’s that should be the focus of large polluting states. They should be front and center to fund necessary post-disaster assistance or even better, to direct resources towards preventative measures.

Countries that are largely responsible for factors that influence a negative change in climate should consider filling the large gaps that exist between mental health needs and the availability and accessibility of mental health systems and services in many countries.



This story was originally published by Island Press Box, with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture between Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.


Picture of Elesha George

Elesha George

Elesha has practiced journalism, utilizing several platforms to include television, radio and newspaper publication over the past 10 years. Currently, she is based in Antigua and Barbuda as the co-owner of Island Press Box.

Elesha is also part of the 2023 fellowship team of the Young Leaders of America Initiative (YLAI) which allows her to intern with companies that can help expand the footprint of Wadadli Unplugged. Outside of her professional life, she very much enjoys sleeping and being in nature.

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