Barbuda was the first place Hurricane Irma made landfall as the Category 5 storm devastated a string of islands in the Caribbean earlier this month. As of noon ET on Friday — 24 days after the storm destroyed much of the island — Barbuda's evacuation order was officially lifted.
Some residents were being allowed to return home this week, but health and waste management officials haven't yet given the all-clear that the island is once again sufficiently habitable. Even before the evacuation order was lifted, construction and relief crews were working on the island. Some hotel owners were also allowed to return, to start preparing their properties to reopen.
Antigua and Barbuda's ambassador to the U.S., Ronald Sanders, says the evacuation meant that for the first time in 300 years, there's been no one living on Barbuda full time.
Citing the current lack of water and power on the island, Sanders added that while people will be allowed to go back on a voluntary basis, "it's not a bed of roses."
The massive cleanup and recovery effort is being carried out in stages. In an update this week, Antigua and Barbuda's Ministry of Health and the Environment said:
"The mosquito problem is under control. Stagnant water has been treated and removed from most areas. Measures have been taken to control the rodent population. Most debris has been removed from public roads and other public areas. The dead animals issue has been treated and mainly eradicated.
"In addition, the Hanna Thomas hospital was cleaned up and the undamaged part is now being used by EMS as a medical post."
Irma brought "unprecedented" levels of destruction to Barbuda, Prime Minister Gaston Browne said after touring the damage earlier this month. He said that 95 percent of the island's buildings were damaged; the government deemed it to be uninhabitable.
As the National Office of Disaster Services tries to prepare the island for more people to return, the agency says 280 tents have been donated, along with 500 temporary housing units. The agency also says that "two generators have been issued to the tire repair shop and a supermarket on the island so that services in those areas can be provided."
The country's Red Cross division says $50,000 worth of medical equipment was donated to help Barbuda's Hanna Thomas hospital carry out examinations and emergency care. The agency's director on the island, Peter Cuffy, says his home was spared — and that he wants it to be used as a base for the Red Cross and for anyone who needs shelter.
The next phase of the rebuilding effort, the government says, will focus on repairing houses that were least damaged. Carpenters are rebuilding part of a community center, in the hopes that it can be used to house at least 100 workers during the rebuilding phase.