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Lessons For CARICOM Governments After Hurricane Irma

Updated on September 19, 2017
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Mike is the CEO of COMMONSENSE STRATEGIES, a Brooklyn-Based Small Business Consulting & Social Media Management company.

How Hurricanes Wreak Havoc On Vulnerable Caribbean Island-Nations Every Year

An Analysis By

Michael Derek Roberts

With a US$30 billion damage and destruction price tag, Hurricane Irma is the worst natural disaster to hit the Caribbean region in over 50 years. The Category 5 storm also ravaged Florida chalking up an additional $50 billion in death and destruction. For Floridians the cost to rebuild with be footed by the US Federal government. It’s not so easy for the small island-nation states of the Caribbean. The hurricane destroyed Barbuda, Antigua’s poorer sister isle in their independent state; wrecked most dwellings on tiny St Martin, an island divided between France and the Netherlands; flattened Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands, and St John in the American-owned half of the same archipelago. Irma’s cost to these small Caribbean islands, which promote themselves as tourist paradises, will exceed their Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Still, Hurricane Irma is a dire warning for the Caribbean that its political leaders ignore at their peril. The fact is that warmer seas, one of the negative effects of climate change, will bring stronger and larger (area-wise) hurricanes with bigger storm surges and more destructive power.

That’s something that all regional governments must recognize and confront: more powerful annual storms will smash the beach resorts from which the large majority of Caribbean islands make their living. A one-meter (39. 3700787 inches) rise in sea levels that environmental scientists believe can happen this century could possibly displace more than 100,000 people in the region. That is a looming humanitarian crisis and disaster waiting to happen.

In this context CARICOM governments and institutions need to get a grip on this annual natural phenomenon because its not if but when and where the next round of dangerous hurricanes will hit. Today it’s Barbuda, Cuba and St. Martin, tomorrow it will be Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Haiti or all of them - if hurricane trends are anything to go by. To be sure the region has learned a few lessons since Hurricane Ivan pummeled Grenada in 2004. This government has become better at educating residents and providing emergency shelter that is an object lesson for the rest of CARICOM. There’s now a regional disaster insurance program that pays out money in the event of a hurricane. And there’s CDEMA (Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency), a regional organization, that co-ordinates planning and relief efforts for its 18 members, including British overseas territories.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that ALL of the regional Caribbean governments have dropped the ball when it comes to the difficult things needed to make their islands safer and more resilient. For example, antiquated and outmoded building codes, some going back to the 1800s, are still applied in a knee-jerk fashion, if at all. What this means is that the vast majority of the region’s population occupies housing that is too flimsy and structurally weak to withstand even a Category 1 hurricane or a powerful tropical storm.

A lot of this poor planning and failure to learn from previous natural disasters is about governments giving real estate developers permission to remove sand from beaches and dredge protective mangrove swamps to erect cheap hotels by the water’s edge. Jamaica is a classic case of this unwise short-tem “tourism at any cost” approach that features large box hotels built on or near beaches. Fixing these unintended problems is bound to be expensive. I submit that they will be left untended, as myopic politicians cannot see beyond the next election.

CARICOM’s weak bureaucracies and regional political fragmentation is also a real challenge that hinders a collective, coherent, and proactive regional disaster preparedness and response regime. Regional governments are notorious for paying lip service and giving very little support to some of the joint initiatives they have created. For example, even as Irma loomed large and dangerous and the destruction forecast, CDEMA’s members had yet to approve the budget of its disaster co-ordination unit. The Caribbean Community Climate Change Center, which is supposed to help members adjust to climate change, incredibly gets almost no money from the region’s government that has pledged to support the organization.

So the bottom line is this: To weather coming storms, as well as earthquakes and droughts, the Caribbean region will have to do a lot more. Billions of dollars will have to be spent on upgrading buildings, roads and other infrastructure. With prudent forward planning and thinking when powerful hurricanes force Caribbean islands to rebuild they should take the opportunity to build hotels and roads farther away from the seashore. CARICOM has an obligation to set up uniform building codes and standards for the entire region. CARICOM agencies empowered by the region’s governments must be able to mobilize fleets of boats and planes at short notice when a disaster strikes. Better planning cooperation not only in the region but also with North American and European partners is necessary and vital to handle the other Irma’s that is bound to come. CARICOM’s governments must step up to the plate or the alternative will be dire indeed.

Caribbean Devastation after Irma

© 2017 Michael Roberts

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