‘If it just starts to rain outside, they get anxious,’ an aid worker said of her fellow islanders, who once would have shrugged off the fierce tempests that sweep through Dominica every year. But that was before Hurricane Maria.
When Erika hit in 2015, it was one of the most devastating storms to ever make landfall on the Caribbean island. A report from the United Nation’s ReliefWeb, on the ‘Lessons Learned’ by the humanitarian agencies that responded to the disaster, was just about to be published in September 2017 when the small nation of 70,000 people was struck by a far more powerful storm: Irma. The hurricane was closely followed by Maria, also a category 5, the highest.
Since hurricanes began to be recorded and classified in 1851, only 33 storms had reached category-5 strength in the Atlantic until then, according to Michael Lowry, a scientist at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Colorado. In 2017, the Caribbean got whacked by two within a few days.
Erika caused 13 deaths and directly affected nearly 16,000 people – about 25% of the population. Economic losses were estimated to be $483m, or about 90% of the country’s GDP. But when Maria swept in two years later, it killed 65 people and affected 57,000 people – about 80% of Dominicans. It also destroyed all the crops, cut all communication with the world, ripped off most roofs on the island, and cost $1.3bn – about 226% of economic output.
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In both cases, torrential rain triggered flooding and huge landslides. The mountainous island’s 365 rivers carried boulders and debris to the coast, destroying villages, roads, bridges and farmland along the way – undoing years of hard-won development gains. Some islanders have never recovered ‘I don’t think anybody ever got over Maria,’ says Christine John, of the Dominica Red Cross. ‘There are a lot of persons today, if it just starts to rain outside, they get anxious.’
In its wake, Dominica vowed to become the world’s first disaster-resilient nation, even though rebuilding to higher standards would cost 25% more. This takes many forms, such as banning plastic (the island has only one overstuffed landfill site and no means to recycle it); reforestation; expanding the road network, including making bridges higher to allow for water and debris overflow; and trying to improve food security and community preparedness.
In 2021, Dominica published its Climate Resilience and Recovery Plan. A particular focus was on building codes to create more resilient infrastructure, after finding that most people were using out-of-date construction practices and poor-quality materials, while rules were not being enforced by officials. The damage to the housing sector alone from Irma and Maria amounted to $350m.
This month, the government said it had finished building 1,811 ‘resilient homes’, more than a third of its target of constructing 5,000 by 2030. Priority is given to single-parent households; elderly and disabled people; and anyone still living in a shelter due to Hurricane Maria. Under the Housing Recovery Project, houses must not be in a landslide or flood-risk zone, or within 200 metres of a protected area. Built with reinforced concrete and stormproof windows, they are also fortified with retaining walls, have improved sewage and stormwater drainage systems, and all utility lines are buried underground to protect them.
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Now construction has begun on six schools, in a $30m project funded by China, starting with Goodwill secondary school in the capital, Roseau (the old school was destroyed by the hurricane in 2017). Dominica’s prime minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, called the new school a ‘symbol of hope and resilience’. It is only one of many recent examples of Beijing stepping in to finance projects, such as in the Bahamas, or to expand its presence in other ways, such as projecting its power among small states in the Pacific.
Similar programmes are under way in other Commonwealth countries across the Caribbean, such as Barbados, where the government of Mia Mottley is implementing its Roofs to Reefs programme. This began with the aim of securing homes after seeing too many roofs being blown off in storms. It is also implementing renewable energy, rainwater harvesting, and using sustainable natural solutions to limit agricultural runoff to protect reefs.
As one of the regions in the world facing the most immediate existential threat, it seems appropriate that the Caribbean is trying to force the pace of change. Mottley has proposed an overhaul of development financing known as the Bridgetown Initiative. As the Barbadian leader told the 2021 Glasgow climate summit, the sword to ‘cut the Gordian knot’ already exists: the west’s central banks spent $25tn on quantitative easing in 13 years ($9tn of that during the Covid-19 pandemic). ‘Had we used that to purchase bonds to finance the energy transition, or the transition of how we eat,’ she told delegates, ‘we’d be reaching that 1.5C limit.’
Another source of development funding may come from the proposed collaboration between the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Caribbean Development Bank, which agreed on the sidelines of July’s Caricom conference in Tobago to ‘explore combining expertise and resources to undertake joint activities to promote good governance, economic growth, climate action and technological innovation’ in the region. But, not for the first time, the Commonwealth declaration is short on detail and it remains to be seen how much funding will come out of it.
The sense of urgency is building inexorably. ‘Scientists say that without immediate action, the Caribbean could eventually become nearly uninhabitable,’ the Council on Foreign Relations said recently. It is a future that Skerrit foresaw when he addressed the United Nations general assembly as Dominica was still reeling from Hurricane Maria.
As his fellow islanders buried their dead, Skerrit denounced those who would deny the reality of climate change: ‘In the past we would prepare for one heavy storm a year. Now, thousands of storms form on a breeze in the mid-Atlantic and line up to pound us with maximum force and fury,’ he told the UN. ‘Eden is broken … We need resources now!’
Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table editorial board.