As the skies over the Caribbean momentarily clear, the full extent of the damage caused by Hurricane Irma continues to be appreciated.
Tragically, the death toll now includes Trinidad and Tobago national Melan June Salvary-Doyle, 64, and her grandson Oliver Robert Doyle-Gedio, 3, whose bodies were discovered earlier this week. Both were swept to their deaths in raging flood waters when Irma unleashed her deadly torrent on the tiny island of St Martin last Wednesday.
According to some accounts, Salvary-Doyle and the toddler were in a house that began to fall apart during the storm. They were in the process of relocating when disaster struck.
We express condolences to the family during these trying times as they, and the people all across the Caribbean, continue to pick up the pieces after a historic storm.
By some estimates, the total death toll from Irma – including in Florida and the Caribbean – was at 61 yesterday, though fatalities may number even higher as authorities continue recovery operations.
Those operations now also involve the evacuation of 50 people from Sint Maarten, including 19 Trinidad and Tobago nationals. Those nationals are expected to return to Trinidad and Tobago in coming days.
The extent of the damage and the close ties between this country and our Caribbean neighbours call for a continuation of assistance. While the loan of a helicopter was clearly an invaluable gesture, it may well be that Trinidad and Tobago, and Caricom as a whole, should do more and also provide monetary assistance that will be crucial in the months ahead. This should be limited to countries that are not dependencies.
With indications that the frequency of serious storms may well grow more unpredictable due to climate change, perhaps the time is also right to revisit the idea of a Caribbean Disaster Relief Fund.
Such a fund could be capitalised by contributions from Caricom states and then be perpetuated as a self-sustaining funding mechanism. Member states could draw upon the fund for two areas: the funding of measures that enhance immediate capacity to deal with the aftermath of storms, and fiscal support in a period in which substantial reconstructive effort is required by the damaged economy.
The fund would have to have clear rules and criteria and regular top-ups from member states could be one way of replenishing it. It may also become a central agency capable of receiving support from international bodies.
Of course, any fund would have to be run with the highest degree of transparency and there must be accountability it its management.
Unfortunately, our experience with Caricom-wide funds, such as the Caricom Petroleum Fund, has led to questions over how the money has been applied.
Care must also be taken to ensure there is no overlap with another regional fund, the Caribbean Development Fund (CDF). The CDF already has a mandate “of providing financial or technical assistance to disadvantaged countries, regions and sectors.” Perhaps development goals should be aligned in such a way that prioritises the bolstering of capacity in the long run to ensure CDF countries are more resilient in the wake of disasters.
We should also look to the signs of improvements in the US’s own relief efforts for lessons locally. There, systems have been praised for limiting the death toll. Technology, building codes, weather forecasts and a better understanding of mass evacuation are said to have helped.
If storms are going to get worse in the coming years, we will need all the help we can get and must learn what lessons we can from Irma’s deadly lash.