Caribbean Hurricane Recovery Could Take Years

Three major hurricanes in less than a month have scarred islands across the Caribbean and left billions of dollars in destruction, a crippling toll that will likely mean years of rebuilding.

Though aid is streaming in, relief workers are stretched thin because of the vast scope of the disaster. That has hindered efforts to help tens of thousands recover from the some of the most devastating storms of their lifetimes.

Each day, hundreds of people in Grenada (search) swarm workers who hand out sacks of rice and flour three weeks after a devastating hit from Hurricane Ivan (search), which killed 39 people, damaged or destroyed 90 percent of the island's homes and wiped out the vital nutmeg crop.

"I experienced three previous hurricanes, but I never saw one like this before," said 80-year-old Nella Julien, who crawled into a barrel for safety after Ivan ripped off her metal roof. Now she lives in a church shelter in Grenada's capital of St. George's.

September 2004 will likely go down as one of the most infamous months for hurricanes in Caribbean history: Three powerful storms — Frances, Ivan and Jeanne — tore through the region with a collective ferocity not seen in many years.

The biggest need for workers is in Haiti (search), where the bulk of recovery efforts are focused following floods from Jeanne — then a tropical storm — which killed more than 1,500 people, leaving some 900 missing and 200,000 homeless.

"The aid is coming in, but we need more people on the ground to help," said Elizabeth Byrs, of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (search).

Damages are still being assessed, but the toll in Grenada is expected to near $7 billion, according to the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency (search). That's a gargantuan sum for an island with a $500 million-a-year economy.

"This is the greatest devastation in Grenada's modern history," said Donovan Gentles, of the Barbados-based agency. "It will be a long time before housing and infrastructure will be replaced."

Some homeless have set up temporary camps under neighbors' houses.

In Jamaica (search), the government has named a reconstruction committee following Ivan, which two weeks ago destroyed 8,000 homes and caused an estimated $111 million in damage to livestock, sugar, coffee and other crops. At least 17 people died, out of at least 72 across the Caribbean.

Several towns remain submerged in rural areas, where residents are drying out soaked mattresses while desperate farmers try to salvage vegetable crops.

"The rural areas are really suffering," said Dorothy Francis of the Jamaica Red Cross (search), which is ferrying in food, water and tarpaulins. "People have pretty much lost everything."

The Cayman Islands (search) saw unprecedented destruction from Ivan, which brought gusts of up to 200-mph and towering waves that washed out apartment complexes on Grand Cayman island, damaged hotels and forced about 1,000 people to flee to nearby Cayman Brac island.

It will cost about $2 billion to rebuild the wealthy British territory, government leader McKeeva Bush said. An estimated 70 percent of buildings on Grand Cayman suffered damage. Many areas remain without power.

"Our condo was completely destroyed. The sea surge just washed away the bottom floor," said resident Tracy Pilky, originally from Fort McMurray, Canada. "We had to use a ladder from the outside to get into the second floor bedroom."

Some complained the aid pledged has been too little, and has come too slowly.

This week President Bush asked Congress for $50 million for storm-hit Caribbean countries, with about half going to Haiti. About $20 million in other foreign aid also was pledged, according to the United Nations.

The Bahamas (search) took a beating from two major hurricanes — first Frances and then Jeanne — both of which unleashed widespread flooding, tore off roofs and left hundreds of homes with severe damage.

"Everything is a total loss," said Geleta Knowles, 50, tossing ruined clothes into a heap on hard-hit Grand Bahama island.