Hurricane Irma destroyed 95 percent of buildings and left thousands of inhabitants homeless in the twin-island state of Antigua and Barbuda in the Caribbean last month. Barbuda received the brunt of the storm, forcing its nearly 1,800 residents to evacuate to Antigua. When Ph.D. Nursing student Christina Ross learned that a close friend lost both her house and her two-year-old son in the disaster, she took action.
Unlike most Caribbean islands, Antigua and Barbuda are independent islands, which means that they do not have the same resources as their American or European territorial counterparts. Insufficient electric generators and contaminated water tanks — coupled with the destroyed roof of Hanna Thomas Hospital, Barbuda’s major health center — contribute to current health obstacles.
Contaminated water and disease outbreak are some of the leading causes of secondary deaths following a disaster like Hurricane Irma.
“When I used to be deployed on the ground right after an emergency, you’re really trying to support who’s been injured in the emergency and in the early days, you’re trying to make sure there aren’t additional casualties from the crisis,” said Kirsten Gelsdorf, senior lecturer and director of global humanitarian policy at the Batten School. “Just the wind whipping up debri is massively dangerous for environmental health, and not to mention, for mental health — people have just been through an emergency.”
Shortly after she completed her undergraduate education in Connecticut, Ross spent nearly two years cultivating her nursing skills in the emergency room. As a result, she immediately recognized the crisis in Antigua and Barbuda as an opportunity to respond with her passion for care and collaboration.
“I needed to do something to help,” Ross said. “I figured I would just go around and ask for some supplies because the Office of Disaster Services in Antigua published a list of the much-needed items. At the time, I wasn’t aiming for anything big. I was thinking if everyone brought a bar of soap or a toothbrush, I would get enough stuff to send down.”
In order to mobilize her medical supply drive in the School of Nursing and elsewhere on Grounds, Ross reached out to Susan Kools, Ross’s academic advisor and nursing professor, who helped advertise for supplies among faculty and staff. Director of Diversity Programs Keisha John emailed her department in the College to spread word of the drive. Ross placed collection boxes in the lobbies of nursing buildings and the hospital.
“It was all Christina. She put out the boxes in our buildings and emptied them each day,” Kools said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “By the force of her will, she collected many essential supplies, such as bed linens, soap, toiletries, first aid kits, and menstrual supplies to have shipped to Antigua and Barbuda and to carry herself when she left ... for Antigua to help with the relief effort.”
Ross attributes her frequent moving as a child as her motivation for collecting in-kind donations for Antigua and Barbuda’s hurricane victims. Born in Guyana in South America, Ross moved with her parents to the Caribbean. After attending high school and college in Antigua — where she lived for more than 15 years — Ross moved to the United States to complete her education.
“At first when I was younger, I hated that we moved so much and relocated,” Ross said. “But now, I’m really appreciative of the opportunity to experience different cultures because in times of crisis, I can definitely relate to the people in the Caribbean and what they’re going though. If something happens up here, I can relate, too, because I’m here.”
As of Sept. 30, Ross handed out more than seven suitcases filled with medical in-kind donations.
Ross collected donations of baby bottles, toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, soap, sanitary pads and shaving items. Ross did not gather as many first aid kits as she had intended, but she was overwhelmed by the number of diapers she received, which she primarily credits to the Psychology Department’s baby lab.
“I’m just very grateful. I just want to say thank you to everybody who contributed, no matter how small.” Ross said. “With the events that happened in August, with the hate crimes, I felt hopeless sometimes and like I did not belong here. But with this outpouring of support, it definitely changed my perspective and made me feel like more of a part of a community because the support has been so incredible.”
Gelsdorf said that Ross serves as an inspiration for not only individuals and communities hoping to effect change across borders, but also for government officials and policymakers debating the value of foreign humanitarian aid.
“I think anything that kind of helps bring together people to feel as though they are global citizens and kind of perpetuates global humanity is really good right now,” Gelsdorf said.
Even though Ross has already distributed most of her in-kind donations, she said people willing to become involved can still help by covering shipping costs for the excess items she was unable to carry with her to Antigua and Barbuda. On the topic of monetary donations, Gelsdorf highlighted that the humanitarian aid industry is becoming more involved with cash transfer programming, which gets money into the hands of disaster victims through vouchers, ATM cards and mobile devices so that local regrowth can begin.
“There is going to be major reconstruction of housing that’s necessary and that only will happen in six months,” Gelsdorf said. “That’s when it’s out of the media spotlight, which means it’s not getting as much funding anymore.”