Guest Blog: Reconstructing After The Hurricanes - The Caribbean Challenge

Liz Thompson is a consultant, a former Minister of the government of Barbados and Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations. She is a recipient of the Champion of the Earth Award.After days of concern,
I received a short What’s App message from a friend in Tortola. He said simply that the island had been flattened, that he and his wife had lost everything, but they were grateful to have each other and to be alive.
Several of the islands in the Dutch, French and English speaking Caribbean, have been devastated by #Irma, which struck the Caribbean at Category 4 strength. Then, taking the leisurely time of a tourist on summer holiday in the tropics, 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. Luckily for Floridians, she reached them at Category 3/4 strength. The islands of the Caribbean were not so lucky.
Up North, people do not pay too much attention to the storms moving across the Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea and the very severe damage these weather systems leave behind on the islands. As I wait with the rest of the world to grasp Irma’s full impact on Florida and become increasingly concerned about #Jose, following closely behind her, I started thinking about the #hurricanes that have struck the Caribbean in the last decade or so.
In the aftermath of hurricanes one sees the unbelievable destruction and hears harrowing stories, tales of barbarism, heroism or horror. Of all the hurricanes that hit the Caribbean in my lifetime, the one which sits in my memory is Ivan, the 2004 Category 5, which in five hours, demolished Grenada, taking with it over 90% of the island’s housing stock, infrastructure, the banana and nutmeg crops and 150% of GDP.  It took years to build back and some properties were never reconstructed. Seeing the island after the storm, even in photographs, brought tears to the eyes, goose pimples and unshakeable sadness.
We look at photos or the news and forget that in the center of every storm is a human life and a personal story. One Grenadian taxi driver told me about his feeling of absolute helplessness as every generation of his family lost everything they owned, making it impossible for one family member to give shelter or help to the other. His story was not singular; it was common to families across the island. He told me of the many insurance claims that had been denied and how that increased the level of hardship and loss and about the way in which hurricanes cause jobs to disappear. Listening to recount his Ivan experience was heart-wrenching.

Communications are still down across the worst affected islands over which Irma staked her destructive claim. As I understand it, Tortola has lost 95% of buildings including the airport, national hospital, most of its infrastructure and all vehicles on the island. This is also true of Barbuda and Sint Maarten. Haiti has been hit yet again. 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.
Based on the Grenada experience with Ivan, what does Irma’s passage and the aftermath of this hurricane season mean for island-countries already in serious financial crisis, where the debt to GDP ratio was already past 100%? Bear in mind, these islands are largely tourism dependent economies. Their infrastructure, agriculture, services, airports, 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 losing all the things we take for granted every day, the availability of food, warm meals, clean plates and cups, a change of underwear and clothing, deodorant, toothpaste, a dry place, furniture, our phones, the internet, fresh water, electricity and lighting, health care and 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, all that was special to you such as your pets, identification, photographs, family heirlooms, the agony of losing your home which represents 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. Understand that without basic amenities, no fresh water, limited food and with batteries running low, panic and desperation set in, bringing out the worst and the best of human behavior. Countries facing this set of circumstances can descend into anarchy.
Imagine the fear of the present felt by children and the elderly, and the fear of the future and the daunting nature of the task of rebuilding which able-bodied adults now face. Think of what this level of devastation must mean to the society, economy and ecology/environment. Think, really think of what it means for an island to be decimated. On an island, residents cannot move to another state, as happens on large land masses, like the United Sates. There is nowhere to flee to.
Hurricanes are classified from Categories 1 through 5. Under 74 miles per hour (mph), the weather system is called a storm. Category 1 hurricanes have winds ranging from 75 – 96 mph. Category 2, 96 – 110 mph. Category 3, 111- 130, Category 4, 130 – 156 mph and systems with winds over 156 mph, are classified as Category 5 hurricanes. In terms of wind speed, Irma is the second most powerful hurricane ever recorded. Allen, with recorded winds speeds of up to 190 miles per hour, was the most powerful. However, the size of Irma, her slow passage, and her path over land, have combined to make her the most destructive hurricane in my lifetime.
The number and frequency of these destructive weather systems moving across the Atlantic are increasing, as is their intensity. The same is true in the Pacific. Similar to what is happening now with Irma and Jose, in 2004, Charley struck the same islands that had been struck by Bonnie, only 22 hours earlier. In 2007, Felix and Matthew followed each other across the Atlantic. It is not now uncommon for Caribbean islands to be hit by more than one storm or hurricane during a single hurricane season. 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.
In the late twentieth century, a number of powerful hurricanes moved through the Caribbean, laying some islands flat. It is amazing how quickly we forget and move on. These included Hurricanes David (1979), Allen (1980), Gilbert (1988) and Andrew (1992). Jamaican reggae artiste Lovindeer, memorialized Hurricane Gilbert in hilarious fashion, in a song called, “Wild Gilbert.” Look for it on YouTube.
I have compiled a list of the major hurricanes that hit the Caribbean in the last decade or so. The list is not comprehensive, for instance Omar, the 2008 Category 1, which caused $79 billion in damage is not in the table below.  I’m just trying to give readers a snapshot of the reality of the Caribbean experience. Some of the hurricanes listed also affected North and South America. A number of them made it to the United States, Andrew (1994), Charley (2004), Katrina (2005), Ike (2008), Sandy (2012), Harvey (2017), Irma (2017). Some, such as Dean (1989), Bertha (1996), Irene (2011) and Sandy (2012), also went on to affect affect Canada. My focus here however, is the Caribbean.

Just a caution to readers, the value of the damage listed below is the total damage caused by the hurricane, not the damage caused solely in the Caribbean, as those figures are far more difficult to ascertain. The currency used is United States dollars.

Bonnie – Storm,  winds 69 mph,  5 deaths,  $1 billion in damage. Islands impacted, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Jamaica, St Vincent and the Grenadines

Charley – Category 3, winds 150 mph, 5 deaths, $16.3 billion in damage. Islands impacted, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Jamaica, St Vincent and the Grenadines.

Ivan – Category 5, winds 165 mph, 165 deaths, $23 billion in damage. Islands – Cayman, Cuba, Grenada, Jamaica, Martinique, Mustique, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines.

Katrina -  Category 5, 173 mph, 1833 fatalities, damage 108 billion. Islands – Bahamas, Barbuda, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Sint Maarten, Tortola, Turks and Caicos, St Vincent.

Rita – Category 5, 177 mph winds, 120 deaths, $10 billion. Bahamas, Cuba, Turks and Caicos.

Stan – Category 1, 80 mph, 1,688 deaths, damage $3.96. Islands – Belize, South America.

Wilma – Category 5, 183 mph, 62 deaths, damage $29.5 billion. Islands – Bahamas, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Hispaniola, Haiti, Jamaica.

Felix – Category 5, 160 mph, 133 deaths, damage $720 million. Islands – Dominica, Grenada, Martinique, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines.

Ike – Category 4, 143 mph, 195 deaths, $37 billion damage. Islands – Bahamas, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Turks and Caicos.

Irene – Category 3, 120 mph, 56 deaths, damage $15.5 billion. Islands – Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Puerto Rico.

Sandy – Category 3, 114.9 mph, 233 deaths, damage was $108 billion. Islands – Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Puerto Rico.

Harvey - Category 3, 120 mph, 70 deaths, Damage of $90 billion. Islands - Barbados, Guyana, St Vincent and the Eastern Caribbean.

Irma - Category 5, 180 mph, deaths and damage still unknown. Islands - US Virgin Islands, British Virgin Islands, Lesser Antilles, Greater Antilles, French protectorates, Antigua, Anguilla, Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados Cuba, Cayman Islands, Hispaniola, Haiti, Jamaica, St Kitts.
As a point of scale and reference, hurricanes #Sandy and #Harvey which wreaked such havoc on the United Sates, were both Category 3 hurricanes. #Andrew of 1994, was a small hurricane. It hit Florida with winds of 174 miles per hour, causing 65 fatalities, the loss of 63,000 homes and $45 billion in damage. Irma was the size of Massachusetts, or five times the size of Andrew. When Irma hit Florida, it was a Category 3, but it had earlier struck the Caribbean at a Category 5, with winds of 180 miles per hour. Contrary to what is believed, in many places in the Caribbean, houses are built with more steel and more sturdily than the average house in the US, but they were no match for Irma.
Some of the facilities, infrastructure and properties in American states that were pounded by these monster-hurricanes are yet to be rebuilt; some may never be. If this is true of the mighty United States, a large landmass, wealthy country, with substantial infrastructure, resources and the capacity to rebuild, think what Irma, a large slow moving hurricane with winds up to 180 miles per hour and her aftermath must mean to society, economy and ecology on an island, the average size of which is about 232 square miles or 600 square kilometers, although many Caribbean islands, like Barbuda and Anguilla, are considerably smaller than that. Imagine a hurricane with the power and size of Irma sitting over an island for a day.
Now, think what happens in small islands vulnerable to environmental and economic shocks, when they are hit by hurricanes in two or more successive hurricane seasons. Consider what is likely to happen, when the ground is saturated, there is nowhere to hide or seek cover, people are almost paralyzed with fear and within the same hurricane season, a second hurricane takes aim, on an already devastated island-state. Hurricane Jose follows close on Irma’s heels. Behind him is Lee and other family members are waiting their turn to visit the Caribbean.
The rebuilding effort will not be easy for several reasons. First, the devastation is  vast. Second, the loss of all commercial equipment, vehicles and road networks makes moving around and clean up very difficult. Third without food and water, basic survival becomes the overwhelming priority of residents. 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.
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. A further difficulty comes from the fact that given the damage and took 200,000 lives. Despite the numerous pledges of help and concerted effort in Haiti, many people there are still living in tent cities, thousands died from a later cholera outbreak linked to UN personnel, nearly a decade later, the rebuilding effort is not complete. Multiply this by the fact that we are not talking about one or two islands. More than twenty islands either have severe damage or are 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 which increases their vulnerability and compromises the capacity of these micro-states to achieve sustainable development and the #SDGs. At the time of writing, Barbuda has been flattened and is preparing for a mass evacuation as Jose spins toward the Eastern Caribbean.

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


The photo attached is Barbuda. Note that the structures are wall. Not too the boat on top of what remains of houses.


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