By Carla Bridglal
After the devastating effects of Hurricanes Irma and Maria last September, Caribbean nations are starting to fully embrace the necessity of becoming climate resilient in the face of extreme weather phenomena. Together, Irma and Maria caused over US$155 billion in damages and over 170 confirmed fatalities. Recovery is expected to take decades in a world where massive and intense storms like these – once anomalies – are now expected to be more frequent.
There remains, though, the chance to learn, to improve and to prepare for any future occurrence. And since learning is maximised by sharing ideas, the US Embassy in Trinidad, last month hosted nearly 50 activists and experts from 19 Caribbean countries to spend five days sharing experiences and brainstorming on how best to approach this new reality in an integrated and sustainable way.
Business Day was invited to speak with four of the participants – from Puerto Rico, Haiti, Antigua and Barbuda, and Dominica – getting their perspectives on their best practices, where they might have fallen short, and going forward, how they can adapt.
Opportunity exists among the rubble, and each island has provided its own insight – in Puerto Rico, Melina Aguilar has tapped into the emotional response of the diaspora and channelled its resources to empower a grassroots movement. In Haiti, Olivier Senat is working with children to educate from an early age the importance of environmental protection and sustainability. In Antigua, Adelle Blair notes how the country’s preparations (and luck) has allowed it to capitalise but still empathise; and Donalson Frederick from Dominica advocates for better Caribbean integration.
Melina Aguilar, founder of Conexión Caribe (CC), a non-profit disaster relief and coordination organisation founded in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
“My foundation was born out of the disaster. We’re very hands-on, grassroots. We didn’t have time to create bank accounts or do reports. We just needed money and supplies, and we asked people to trust us. We used social media and took pictures of everything we did as evidence of what we were doing to build credibility and they were happy to donate when they say that we were taking things to the people who needed it,” Melina said. Primary funding, she added, came from the diaspora, which had a visceral, emotional response to the destruction and just wanted to help.
Conexión Caribe also targeted trusted community leaders, who were able to direct aid to where it was needed most, especially when national resources, like the military or the government were unable to immediately respond. They also used radio as a form of communication when most others were down.
“My foundation is focused on certain part of the island in communities that I know well. I’m not trying to tackle the whole island or the most destroyed areas. I think I can make the most impact from where I’m from. It’s very important to have leaders all across the island, not just one figure who becomes the saviour of everyone,” she said. The next step, she said, is to start training these community leaders to have the proper expertise the next time there’s an emergency.
Olivier Senat, founder of Jeunesse Verte Haitienne (JVH), which seeks to educate and empower youths in Haiti to advocate for environmental protection.
“I often say the change I seek, I’m not going to see (in the near future), but what I can see is the change in the mentality of these children to take action,” Olivier said.
The children, he believes, will be the generation of change, away from the current apathy that exists across much of the country when it comes to disaster preparedness. Olivier’s JVH foundation, teaches children between the ages of eight and 14 about environmental protection, with activities that include recycling and planting trees.
“Children are very receptive. They believe the message and it stays with them as they get older,” he said.
Adelle Blair, senior civil servant with the Government of Antigua & Barbuda.
“It’s bittersweet because we care for our regional brothers and sisters who were severely impacted but because Antigua was spared for the most part, some of the cruise ships that would have gone to, say, St Martin, and the yachties and others, have diverted to us. It’s an opportunity, and we are taking that to improve our facilities. It’s a matter of noting the increase and responding,” Adelle said.
Antigua had strengthened its building codes after 1989’s visit from Hurricane Hugo and Hurricane Luis in 1995 – the previous yardsticks for impact. Now, especially as climate change brings about higher sea levels and more devastating storm surge, new regulations are being considered, especially for beach front properties, built further back from the shore to avoid flooding.
Communications after a disaster is something to be improved, Adelle added, noting the experience of another Caribbean island, Grenada, that had started certification training in HAM and CB radio (amateur systems), that can come in handy to connect the island when other communications go down.
Donalson Frederick, programme officer at the Office for Disaster Management.
“Maria took us by surprise. We were expecting a Category 2 storm and that’s what we prepared for. It’s alarming to know that in less than 24 hours, the storm intensified so quickly. Because of that we had a terrible experience,” Donalson said.
Most of Dominica’s infrastructure was damaged especially critical aspects like bridges and roads. Now, he said, the island is re-evaluating its building codes, making practical decisions that can go a long way to mitigating the effects of wind – as simple as replacing nails in a roof with screws or making eaves shorter. The island is also attempting to improve its energy security.
“Energy is a critical aspect. It powers communication, which is a critical element of disaster response,” he said. Dominica is a volcanic island, so it will look to maximise its use of geothermal energy – a renewable resource. “Our Prime Minister has pledged to make Dominica a model climate-resilient nation,” he said. And as the effects of climate change gets more noticeable, Donalson believes regional integration is the best bet for the Caribbean.
“When one country is affected it has a ripple effect. We were grateful for the help we got from other islands. We must have co-operation,” he said.