Building back better: going beyond disaster recovery in the Caribbean

Building back better: going beyond disaster recovery in the Caribbean

By Laura Canevari

Last year the Caribbean experienced one of the most dramatic and devastating hurricane seasons on record. Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm, broke records as one of just five hurricanes to have sustained wind speeds of above 185 mph. Irma spent 37 hours as a category 5 hurricane, the joint longest ever. The impacts were catastrophic in the Leeward islands, and left parts of Florida completely battered. Just a couple of weeks later, Hurricane Maria (also a Category 5) crossed the Windward Islands, leaving further devastation as it ripped through Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Dominica.

It was against this context that the Overseas Development Institute held its event “Building Back Better: A resilient Caribbean after the 2017 hurricanes.” The conference addressed four pillars for resilience building: Ecosystems and planning; Codes and practices; Economies; and Governance. Acclimatise’s John Firth and Laura Canevari were in attendance, providing insights from Acclimatise’s years of experience of resilience building in the region.

Firth reflected on the challenges and complexities of building resilient economies in small Caribbean states, noting the difficulties of attracting private sector investment and the low performance of international climate-related funds in the region. He reminded the audience that complex problems cannot be solved with simple solutions and that vulnerability is not a function of climate change per se, but of underlying drivers that increase the socio-ecological and economic resilience of Caribbean states.

As noted by Dr Twigg, Principal Research Fellow, Risk & Resilience of the ODI, during the open evening event that followed the table discussions, it is hard to think about long-term resilience in a post-disaster context. The next hurricane season is just five months away and countries have serious concerns of what is to come. Countries are far from recovery since the last disaster and are even further from being able to build a more resilient future.

There was much discussion about the approaches for financing and implementing post-disaster resilience building. The debate revolved around the tension between immediate disaster recovery and preparation for the next event, and developing processes to achieve long-term sustainability. As noted by several of the presenters, the damage caused by an extreme event can be sometimes two to three times higher than the annual GDP of the countries affected. This means that funds get diverted from other annual budgets such as education, transport or general development. Current objectives on development are already not being met due to current disasters, so thinking about how to build long term resilience is especially challenging.

However, disasters such as the ones caused by Irma and Maria open windows of opportunity for Caribbean countries. They offer an opportunity to re-think what a sustainable future looks like and what measures are needed to achieve it. In the case of Dominica, where the devastation of the island was almost total, the country has taken a decisive step towards a more resilient pathway. It announced its intention to be the “first climate resilient country in the world”. This is an exceptional pledge for a small country like Dominica and will require tough choices to be made on how to rebuild the communities, what industries to foster in the economy, and whose voices should be heard.

Dominica’s ambition shows that disasters can be used to generate political momentum to increase climate resilience. As this ODI report points out, some of the underlying vulnerabilities of Caribbean countries come from the legacy of their colonial history and stem from weak institutions, structures and economic pillars that accompanied it.

There was a palpable sense of urgency at the event, with the visible impacts of the hurricane season still affecting the lives of millions in the region. As Rt Hon. Patricia Scotland, Secretary General of Commonwealth Secretariat, noted, these disasters were not unexpected, and we can expect them to happen again.

Many things are needed to build a better, stronger Caribbean. Ronal Jackson, Executive Director at CDEMA pointed to the need for harmonisation of efforts, development and enforcement of better standards, incentives for mobilising the private sector and better use of information about risk as some of the elements that are needed to develop an enabling environment. One of the fundamental lessons of the day was the importance of engaging with affected communities in the process, to support and improve future self-recovery efforts. At the same time, immediate needs such as better stocking on warehousing facilities in the region and setting pre-arrangements with air and shipping companies that may help during disaster response are needed.

To access the briefing note, click here.

Download the conference report by clicking here.


Cover photo by US Customs Border Protection (public domain): Homes lay in ruin as seen from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Air and Marine Operations, Black Hawk during a flyover of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria September 23, 2017. U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo by Kris Grogan.

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