How Do You Solve a Problem Like Hurricane Maria?

It’s difficult to imagine in our modern connected society that an entire country could lose contact with the world for a whole day, yet in September 2017 this is what happened to the Caribbean island nation of Dominica when Hurricane Maria made landfall. To make matters worse, Maria kept a thick layer of cloud over the island for much of the day, making reconnaissance via aircraft impossible. It was, as one disaster co-ordinator remarked that morning, as if Dominica had fallen off the edge of the earth.

When Dominica finally emerged from the clouds, the extent of the devastation became apparent. 90-95% of buildings were destroyed or damaged, leaving more than half the population displaced. Power, water and telecommunications were cut off entirely and every port, airport and major roadway was unusable. “We saw everything totally destroyed” said UN Team Leader Sergio Da Silva, “this island that used to be all green with leaves and trees was totally brown.”

In the US, Jamaica, and Barbados, emergency teams convened and immediately began the delicate task of planning the rescue and recovery of an island totally inaccessible to the outside world. The Royal Navy, already in the region following Hurricane Irma, stationed vessels off the coast to allow aid to be flown close to the island within reach of local fisherman, who also ferried supplies from the neighbouring islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. The people of Dominica set about repairing their home, clearing roads, rebuilding runways and ports, and restoring power to the main hospitals via generators. Aid slowly began to trickle onto the island, mainly in the form of potable water, high-energy biscuits, and fuel for the generators.

The death toll, once feared to have the potential to reach the thousands, stands at thirty-one. Though the devastation was almost total, a humanitarian crisis similar to the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake was avoided. By the beginning of the following week, banks and small businesses were beginning to reopen in the capital, Roseau.

Members of the local community join US Army and Jamaican Defence Force personnel to unload relief supplies in Wotten Waven, Dominica. Oct.3. Source: US Department of Defence, Sgt. Ian Leones. Wikimedia Commons

The longer-term rebuilding of Dominica is a greater project. 70% of Dominicans lost their livelihoods because of Maria, and the future of the island’s emerging eco-tourism sector is in question. With the estimated damage and loss standing at $1.37bn, 226% of Dominica’s GDP, the island cannot recover without significant outside assistance. A UN-led international task force has been in place since October, completing rebuilding projects, reopening schools, and providing emergency livelihoods for families left with no income.

To the credit of both international partners and the Dominican people, the island’s recovery has been remarkable. As of February, 94% of the country’s schools had reopened alongside all health facilities and all but a few minor roads. On January 28th, the island welcomed its first large cruise ship since Maria, far ahead of the anticipated timeline, and several other cruise operators have reintroduced Dominica into their call schedule. Roseau is now operating more or less as usual.

There is a long way to go, especially in rural areas, where the government predict it will take five years to regain what was lost. 80% of the country is still without power and the majority of those returning to their homes will return to inadequate roofing; little protection against the ferocious rainstorms that will begin coming when the rainy season arrives. 25,000 people are wholly reliant on unconditional cash transfers to put food on the table. Agriculture has been completely destroyed, and there is no quick fix for re-growing crops and rearing livestock. For rural Dominicans, life is not much better now than it was in September.

There is a growing discontent about the future that is felt not just in Dominica, but across the region. Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerritt visited the United Nations General Assembly shortly after Maria to plead for increased action on climate change. “The war has come to us” he said, “We in the Caribbean do not produce greenhouse gases […] yet we are among the main victims […] the battle we face has brought us to our knees”.

Dominica’s crisis is a microcosm of a region reeling from the worst hurricane season on record, affecting 1.4 million people in the Eastern Caribbean alone. In addition to Maria, which also caused $90bn worth of damage in Puerto Rico, Hurricane Irma left Barbuda deserted and several other Leeward Islands demolished. Hurricanes Jose and Harvey were minor course corrections away from wreaking similar havoc, the latter making landfall in the US, becoming the joint-most costly tropical storm in history. Never before has the Caribbean seen so many Category 4 and 5 hurricanes in one season.

Hurricane’s Katia (left), Irma (centre) and Jose (right). The first time since 2010 three hurricanes have been active at the same time. Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Wikimedia Commons

2017 was not entirely anomalous; as warmer sea temperatures in the Atlantic are increasing the power and volatility of storm systems, most of the worst seasons on record have occurred in the 21st century. What was once a generational event has become almost annual. Caribbean residents spent much of the summer following storm charts, with the weary anxiety of a region too familiar with the consequences of landfall. Emergency meetings in Jamaica and Barbados are not the frantic, panicked affairs their name suggests. They are formulaic video conferences conducted by well-practised hands accustomed to the needs of these no-longer-unprecedented events.

Prior to 2015, Dominica’s last devastating hurricane was David in 1979, and before that 1834. Now the island has been torn apart twice in three summers, and it’s clear from Prime Minister Skerritt’s speech at the UNGA that Dominica cannot survive if storms continue at that pace. An estimated 21-28% of Dominica’s population fled the island after Maria, many with no intention to return. These are surely among the Caribbean’s first climate refugees, and they will not be the last. The Caribbean is a powerfully positive and unique region, with idyllic natural beauty, loud, colourful cultures and people proud of their island nations. Yet under these conditions with little hope of respite, there is growing despair echoing around the region. Throughout emergency centres, whispers reverberate as the conference calls end and the plans are initiated: “should we rebuild, is it really worth it this time?”

Henry Stout

Henry was in Jamaica working for UNFPA and was part of the humanitarian response to both Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017.

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