By Georgina Wade
On 20 September 2017, an onslaught of catastrophic weather changed the lives of 3 million people forever. One year later, residents of Puerto Rico are still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm that resulted in economic losses of nearly $140 billion and killed nearly 3,000 people directly and in its aftermath.
The tenth most intense Atlantic hurricane on record and the most intense tropical cyclone worldwide of 2017, it was a mix of highly favourable environmental conditions that allowed Maria to undergo explosive intensification as it approached the Caribbean islands.
It was the strongest storm to make landfall in Puerto Rico in 85 years with sustained winds of 155 mph (ca 250 km/h) resulting in a blackout across the entire island and dumping six months’ worth of rain in less than four days. Trees were uprooted, homes were destroyed, and widespread flooding caused more than 1.1 million Puerto Ricans to register for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aid. With no power, running water was cut off for much of the population. Communications to and from Puerto Rico became nearly impossible for days. And when the cloud cover finally broke, the chaos during the storm was only matched by the disarray following it.
With the island’s power grid knocked out, it was only last month that electricity was finally restored to all customers. Emergency health services were left paralysed trapping people in need of care in their homes without access to medication or telephone service.
While previous government estimates had the death toll at 64, an independent study from George Washington University, released 11 months after the storm, found that an estimated 2,975 had died after Maria. The analysis suggested that Hurricane Maria was the second-deadliest storm to ever hit U.S. shores, following the Galveston, Texas hurricane of 1900 that killed an estimated 6,000 people.
Maria demolished 87,094 homes, with another 385,703 sustaining major damage. Up to a quarter of a million people were displaced. A year later, blue tarps covering damaged houses can still be seen by overpassing aircraft. What were supposed to be temporary fixes, are now tattered and fading in the sun as the island struggles to rebuild.
More than 200,000 Puerto Ricans left the island temporarily, with about 11,000 currently living in New York. However, housing funds set aside for Puerto Rican families forced to flee have now ceased. Just last month, a judge ruled that families had to move out from temporary FEMA housing by 14 September.
A long road ahead
Long after a storm dissipates, people still face a harsh reality. A single hurricane can undo years of development and plunge prosperous households into poverty from one day to the next. And while people are quick to focus on the immediate physical costs from hurricane strikes, the resounding social costs can be felt for decades to come.
Grenada, for example, is still dealing with the consequences of being hit successively in 2004 and 2005 by Hurricanes Ivan and Emily. Estimated losses amounted to 200 percent of gross domestic product and Grenada remains in “debt distress” according to the International Monetary Fund.
The Caribbean happens to be the most tourism-dependent region in the world. More than 47 million international visitors travelled to the Caribbean in 2016, spending $31 billion, according to an Oxford Economics study. When hurricanes Irma and Maria battered the Caribbean last fall, the region lost nearly 1 million visitors and an estimated $900 million USD in tourism-related spending. As tourism infrastructure is restored, further losses totalling more than $3 billion USD are expected over the next four years.
Such disasters also have an effect on mental health. Psychologists estimate that 30 to 50 percent of the Puerto Rican population is experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or anxiety following Hurricane Maria.
“The storm takes away the foundations of society. Everything you thought gave you certainty is gone,” says psychologist Domingo Marques, an associate professor at Albizu University in San Juan. “You see people anxious, depressed, scared.”
Everyday routines that once included work and school commutes can come grinding to a halt, only contributing to the semblance of disarray many feel following such catastrophic events. Survivors may bounce back after a few months, or they may experience ongoing stressors, such as financial issues or problems finding permanent and safe housing.
While early disaster recovery efforts often focus on physical reconstruction, psychological recovery efforts typically end up on the back burner.
Building back better
Work towards a more resilient Caribbean starts with building back better. With a changing climate promising more intense storms in the future, it’s increasingly important that action is taken to not only recover from a storm, but to increase resilience to future ones.
In January 2018, following the Caribbean’s devastating hurricane season, The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) 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. Tying in with The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the central idea is that stakeholders should share responsibility in reducing disaster risk and that growing disaster risk is putting a stronger emphasis on better preparedness and overall resilience.
Roundtable discussions included a debate on best approaches to financing and implementing post-disaster resilience building. As noted by several of the presenters, the damage caused by an extreme event can be two to three times higher than the annual GDP of the countries affected. This can mean that funds get diverted from other annual budgets such as education, transport or general development. And with a short timeframe between immediate disaster recovery and preparation for the next event, efforts to build long-term resilience are especially challenging.
Despite this, disasters caused by storms like Irma and Maria open windows of opportunity to rethink the measures needed to ensure a sustainable future. In some cases, disasters can be used to generate political momentum to increase climate resilience. For example, following the almost total devastation to the island of Dominica due to Hurricane Maria, the country responded with its intention to be the “first climate resilient country in the world”.
But many things are needed to build back better. To begin with, it requires a deep understanding of the causes of disaster, recovery processes and future climate risks. Additionally, it requires high levels of commitment from policymakers, the international aid agencies and donors supporting recovery, and from communities already engaged in recovery.
In their briefing paper, ODI introduced four principles that can help guide stakeholders as they transition from immediate responses to longer-term recovery.
- Learn from history and avoid repeating it: understanding the historical and cultural factors that led to disaster is critical to identifying solutions.
- Develop a holistic recovery framework: recovery frameworks should be based on priorities and activities in existing development strategies and land-use plans, to avoid creating a parallel planning system.
- Create transparent, accountable and participatory processes: building consensus on key issues requires involving the widest possible array of relevant stakeholders
- Leave no one behind: Certain types of intervention can deepen marginalisation. Recovery efforts should be built on the principle of ‘leave no one behind’.
Ultimately, disasters can be both a crisis from which to learn and an opportunity to do things better. While hurricanes are a common feature of the Caribbean, there has been limited investment in resilience building to address the many social repercussions of such storms. To avoid further human suffering, ‘building back better’ must become central to development efforts. Climate-related disasters should be used to challenge current decision making and promote investment on long-term climate resilience in the Caribbean and globally.