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Reconstructing the Caribbean after Irma


Published: Sep 16, 2017

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Hurricane Irma devastated several islands of the Caribbean. The hurricane took the leisurely time of a tourist on summer holiday in the tropics. Then she slowly wended her considerable, powerful, awe-inspiring mass, and destructive tentacles of wind, water, storm surge, and frightening spectacle of thunder and lightning, toward Florida.

Irma struck Floridians with winds of 130 miles per hour, Category Strength 3 and 4. She went calling on Caribbean islands at Category Strength 5, with winds over 180 miles per hour. Her large size, slow passage, and path over land have combined to make her the most destructive in recent times. As a point of scale and reference, Hurricanes Sandy and Harvey, which wreaked such havoc on the United Sates, were both Category 3.

The number, frequency and intensity of these destructive weather systems are increasing. It is not now uncommon for Caribbean islands to be hit by more than one storm or hurricane during a single or consecutive hurricane seasons. This is why the island communities of the Caribbean and Pacific are insistent that climate change is not a hoax. It is real. Islands pay a high price for the climate-damaging, carbon-intensive lifestyles of the developed world.

About 20 major hurricanes have hit the Caribbean in the last decade or so. A full half of them have reached the strength of Category 4 or 5. Hurricane Ivan, the infamous 2004 Category 5, demolished Grenada in five hours, taking with it over 90 percent of the island’s housing stock, infrastructure, the banana and nutmeg crops and 150 percent of GDP. Some of these hurricanes made it to the United States – for example, Katrina (2005), Ike (2008), Sandy (2012), Harvey (2017), Irma (2017).

Others such as Dean (1989), Bertha (1996), Irene (2011) and Sandy (2012), also went on to affect Canada. Still others, such as Stan, caused death and damage in Latin America. They ranged from systems such as Bonnie, with winds of 69 miles per hour, to Allen (1980) at 190 mph. The deaths they caused numbered from five (Bonnie) to 1,833 (Katrina). The cost of their damage varied widely, from Bonnie’s US$1 billion to Katrina and Sandy’s US$108 billion, each.

Tortola has lost 95 percent of its buildings, telecommunications capacity, most of its infrastructure and all vehicles. This is also true of Barbuda and St. Maarten. Haiti has been hit by yet another natural disaster. Turks and Caicos, the British Virgin Islands, the United States Virgin Islands, the Dutch Virgin Islands, St. Kitts, Nevis, Puerto Rico, Antigua, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Anguilla and islands of The Bahamas, are all a disaster zone, or very close to one.

What do Irma’s passage and the aftermath of this hurricane season mean for island-countries already in serious financial crisis, with debt-to-GDP ratios already exceeding 100 percent? Bear in mind, these islands are largely tourism dependent economies. Their infrastructure, agriculture, services, buildings, road networks, telecommunications, hotels, restaurants, food supplies and stores, are all gone. The ground is saturated and water reserves are compromised. There are few basic amenities available. The risk of vector-borne diseases from the destruction of landfills, solid waste facilities and sewage systems, is now high.

Think of living without cooked meals, a change of underwear and clothing, toiletries, fresh water, electricity, healthcare, medicine, feminine hygiene products, toilets, toilet paper, effective, efficient, disposal of the dead, access to ATMs and cash, tree cover, vegetation and animals, readily available petroleum products and fairly stable prices of consumer goods.

Now add to all of this, the loss of confidence, demoralization, the pain of losing all your possessions that represent years of labor, the gut-wrenching feeling of walking through rubble that used to be a road where properties and activity once were, the hardship of daily survival. Then add the fear as night comes and total blackness descends. Imagine the fear of the present felt by children and the elderly, the fear of the future and the daunting nature of the task of rebuilding which able-bodied adults now face.

Some of the facilities, infrastructure, and properties in American states that were pounded by monster-hurricanes are yet to be rebuilt; some may never be. If this is true of the United States, a large landmass, where people have space to flee, a wealthy country, with substantial infrastructure, resources and the capacity to rebuild, think what Irma and her aftermath, must mean to society, economy and ecology/environment on an island, the average size of which is about 232 square miles or 600 square kilometers. Many Caribbean islands, like the devastated Anguilla, Barbuda and St. John, are considerably smaller than that.

The rebuilding effort will not be easy, for several reasons. First, the devastation is vast. Second, many of these islands do not now have airports still standing. Third, the loss of all commercial equipment, vehicles and road networks prohibits easy clean up. Fourth, there are no supplies available in most islands to start the rebuilding effort. Fifth, in terms of proximity and usual course of business dealings, building supplies would ordinarily come from the United States. Sixth, without food and water, basic survival becomes the overwhelming priority of residents.

With the focus and effort needed in Houston and Miami, building materials, equipment and supplies will not be easily available or accessible and with high demand, they will not be affordable. Nor will the Caribbean reconstruction have priority of demand on supplies and materials.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that the economies of the islands are devastated; hence there will be no foreign exchange available to pay for supplies and the rebuilding effort. Given the breadth of the damage, there are not large enough labor forces with building skills available on the islands to do the work. The United States, France, the United Kingdom and the Dutch will be focused on their affected island territories. Independent countries such as Barbuda, Antigua’s sister island, although severely impacted, are therefore unlikely to have the same level of support.

There is a further and disconcerting lesson from recent history. In January 2010, when there was no competing natural disaster in the U.S., Haiti experienced an earthquake of magnitude 7.0, out of a maximum 9.0 on the Richter Scale. The earthquake caused mammoth damage and took 200,000 lives. Despite the numerous pledges of help and concerted effort in Haiti, many Haitians are still living in tent cities. Nearly a decade later, the rebuilding effort is not complete. Multiply this by the fact that we are not talking about the reconstruction of one or two islands. Irma has reduced more than 20 islands to a state of severe damage or disaster zones.

The Caribbean is a region of tremendous beauty and equally tremendous vulnerability. The region’s debt crisis and the recent hurricane devastation are the perfect social, economic and ecological storm that increases their vulnerability and compromises the capacity of these micro-states to achieve sustainable development and the SDGs. At the time of writing, several islands have been flattened by Irma; Jose followed close behind, and other family members such as Lee are waiting their turn to visit the Caribbean.

The full extent of the destruction of this hurricane season and its impact on the Caribbean are not yet fully known, but one can only wonder if the affected islands will ever be quite the same again.


• Liz Thompson is a Barbadian, a former minister of government of Barbados and a former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations. She divides her time between New York and Barbados. Published with the permission of Caribbean News Now.

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