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Evacuated Residents of Irma-Wracked Island Barbuda Consider Not Going Back

Barbuda’s infrastructure — the power grid, phone lines and water treatment plant — is devastated.
Image: Pigs scrounge through the remnants of a grocery store and clothing store one week after Hurricane Irma wiped out Barbuda's infrastructure.
Pigs scrounge through the remnants of a grocery store and a clothing store a week after Hurricane Irma wiped out Barbuda's infrastructure.Vaughn Hillyard / NBC News

CODRINGTON, Antigua and Barbuda — Barbuda, a Caribbean island of 1,700 residents, was all but wiped off the face of the map by Hurricane Irma.

It is now deserted — every one of its residents was evacuated after the storm. As with several other Caribbean islands, the storm razed much of it — but at Category 5 strength.

Barbuda's infrastructure — the power grid, the phone lines and the water treatment plant — is devastated, and its residents are scattered across Antigua, its sister island. It sits just 30 miles away, but it almost entirely escaped damage from the storm. The government says Antigua is 100 percent operational.

One week later, however, there are more animals in Barbuda — malnourished dogs, cats, free-roaming horses and donkeys and pigs, goats and roosters — than people. The carcasses of dogs remain exposed in the open air. Animal feces litters the streets.

Not exactly what residents want to come home to.

"Some of them are already saying, 'Come back to what?' Because they know when they left, they had nothing," the Rev. Nigel Henry said from the curb next to his severely damaged house and the church, Barbuda Pentecostal Church, where he serves.

On Saturday, Henry took a plane into the island with the disaster relief organization Samaritan's Purse to survey what's left. NBC News embedded with the organization for multiple days.

Image: Barbuda after Irma
Hurricane Irma swept across the Caribbean island of Barbuda at Category 5 strength this month.Vaughn Hillyard / NBC News

"The neighborhood, the people of Barbuda — how are they going to rebuild their houses? How are they going to get themselves back on a personal level?" Henry asked. "That is going to be a big challenge — mentally, physically, emotionally. These are some issues that even as a pastor I am going to have to deal with."

No building on the island is untouched. Its six schoolrooms were wiped away, leaving just the cement footing behind. The seven churches look more like ghost-town institutions, with blown-out windows and water and wind-lashed interiors. The blue tin roof on the educational building of Henry's church was blown two blocks down the road.

Mosquitoes, which the government fears carry dengue, cholera and Zika, are enveloping the hundreds of structures that mask what used to be hundreds of homes and businesses. The puddled water and remnants of food are attracting more bugs than usual from the lagoon that covers most of the island's surface.

Related: Tropical Storm Maria to Bring Even More Damage to Caribbean

Michal Francois visited Barbuda on Saturday for the first time since her evacuation.

"Just to see the place, and not hearing any voices or seeing anybody, is really, really emotional. It's tough not being able to ..." she cut herself off, pausing for six seconds as she looked over her left shoulder down the road. "Looking around and no activity. It's what you're used to. You know? It's really tough. Really hard."

When the hurricane hit, Francois huddled in the island's TV and radio station that her husband, Clifton Francois, operates. With their 13-year-old son and dog, the family's shelter became a refuge for nearly 40 others as the eye passed over.

They "came outside crying for help," Clifton Francois said Saturday — he joined his wife and Henry on a trip to the island. "So we had to — some of them came to the window [and] some we had to open the door and rescue them."

Image: Clifton Francois
Clifton Francois sheltered with his wife, son and dog inside the Barbuda television and radio station he operates on the island.Vaughn Hillyard / NBC News

Water went up more than a foot inside the studio as adults lifted children onto counters over the hours in which the storm's second lashing took hold and obliterated much of what anchored the town's commerce.

"There were two stores right there — [a] food store and a clothing store, right across here," he said, pointing at a plot of land where three pigs now stood, scrounging through the mash of material. Two untethered horses also stood a few yards away.

When the couple walked up to their studio — one of the few buildings with all four walls still intact — on Saturday, their dog, Chosen, eagerly waited on the road, pouncing on the pair as they walked up.

"We're so happy to see that he's still here. His name is Chosen, so he is, indeed, chosen," Michal Francois said as she cracked a wide smile. "We're lucky to have him alive and well."

Related: Hurricane Irma Survivors in Caribbean Fear They Will Be Forgotten

Antigua and Barbuda's foreign minister, Charles Fernandez, characterized Barbuda on Friday as "a total disaster" that looked as if it had been "nuked." He said the government would fully invest in redeveloping the island.

The government intends to use fogging equipment to cut down on the insects. It will also try to reestablish phone connections next weekend and, then, using 100 generators, return some power to the island.

About 30 military personnel are assigned to overseeing the island and its single, short runway. Some residents have taken supervised day-trip ferry rides over the last week to comb through their belongings.

About 70 percent of Barbudans have secured shelter in the private homes of Antiguans. Another 152 are living on the concourse levels of the island's cricket ground, Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, a makeshift shelter on the island of just more than 90,000 people.

Chefs Randy Prosper and Ian Stay opened a concession stand at the stadium last week, serving three free meals a day.

"The people of Barbuda needed it the most, so why not us?" Prosper asked as he sliced bananas to be sautéed with onion, parsley and butter ahead of Friday night's meal. The pair had never met but now consider themselves partners at the "hotel," as they call it, prepping the food from 5:30 a.m. until, most often, close to 1 a.m. every daily.

Denise Harris is the senior assistant secretary for human resources and accounting at the stadium, but now, and potentially for weeks and months ahead, she is the shelter manager, organizing stadium staff and volunteer efforts to collect and distribute donated clothes and supplies.

Image: Denise Harris
Denise Harris, an employee of the cricket stadium in Antigua, is running the makeshift shelter housing 152 Barbudans evacuated after the hurricane.Vaughn Hillyard / NBC News

Her team hosted a "big dance" on Friday night for the sheltered children and brought a church service to the new residents on Sunday.

"I had this feeling as the storm passed, 'What about Barbuda?' God has a reason. If it was us, Barbuda would not be able to support us," Harris said. "He let it be the way it was because we can support them."

Laquesha Joseph, 10, wearing a green bandana around her head, stood by her mother and sister, who held a donated "Elsa" doll (from the Disney movie "Frozen"), as she recalled fleeing her destroyed home to find refuge ahead of the storm's second wave.

"It looks bad — it doesn't look like a house," the young girl said. "I don't want to go back. I want to stay here."