CI Shorts: An early hurricane reminds the rest of Caribbean to get their houses in order
The devastation wrought by Hurricane Dorian on two of the Bahamian islands served as a wake-up call for the rest of the region to intensify emergency and resilience planning.
The months since the official start of the hurricane season in June had been full of the usual national and regional preparations for the season: national advisories, checking of evacuation areas and numerous training courses for the region’s emergency management personnel.
However, there is nothing like pictures of real-time devastation to focus minds on the detailed planning needed to cope with increasing storms and extreme weather trends.
In St Lucia, Stephenson King, a former prime minister who is currently the island’s infrastructure minister, announced plans on 17 September for the reassessment of building codes and hurricane shelters in the light of the devastation meted out by Dorian in the Bahamas. Mr King said the intensity of Hurricane Dorian was “dangerous” and required a fresh look at building standards. He added that as things stood, “not any school can be a hurricane shelter.”
Jamaica’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Kamina Johnson Smith, put out a call to Jamaicans living abroad to register with their country’s missions. As emergency co-ordinators fanned across the affected islands to find bodies under the rubble, she told parliament that a formal process would have helped the Jamaican government know where their nationals lived in those communities, so the authorities could check on their safety. “We are looking at creating a formal template, and to work with Caribbean airlines and travel agents, to help outgoing persons to be more conscious, because, whenever there is a national disaster, the ability to make contact with you is very important,” she said.
Guyana’s Stabroek News highlighted the concerns of a “significant number of Guyanese teachers” who had been working in the Northern Bahamas and had been displaced by Hurricane Dorian. The newspaper reported on the first group of nationals to return home on 15 September. “If we return [to The Bahamas], it is just to visit, not to work. It is really difficult to relive that experience,” father-of-three Orin Grimmond told reporters at the Cheddi Jagan International Airport. “The experience is terrifying; it is traumatising to begin with. As a husband and father, I looked at my family and there was nothing I could have done to save my family. The water was rising and there was no way to save my family. I cannot say anything else, but that it was a miracle we are alive,” he added.
Haitians living on the affected islands had a different story to tell. The New Humanitarian news agency (which grew out of a United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs project) reported that an estimated 30% of the 72,000 people living on the Abaco Islands are of Haitian descent. According to the agency, survivors contacted by telephone had said they thought the death toll would be much higher than the official figures, because many Haitians and Bahamians of Haitian origin did not have documents and feared that reporting missing relatives and friends could lead to deportations. Ron Duprat, a Haitian chef with World Central Kitchen, a charity that has provided more than 200,000 meals since Dorian hit the Bahamas, told the agency: “Haitians are pretty much in hiding in the Bahamas since Hurricane Dorian.”
Caribbean leaders have also taken the opportunity to put across their message on climate change in the run-up to the UN Climate Action Summit, taking place in New York from 23 September. A number of politicians spoke forcefully at a UN Trade Forum on Sustainable Development Goals and Climate Change which took place in early September.
In a joint op-ed article ahead of the UN Summit, Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Fiji’s leader, Frank Bainimarama, pressed home their call on the website Project Syndicate for the leaders of developed countries to do more to help small island states combat global warming. They wrote: “Although small islands bear the least responsibility for climate change, we stand to lose the most as a result of its effects, owing partly to our small size and fragile economies. In addition, our populations, critical infrastructure and key economic assets are highly exposed to extreme weather events, rising sea levels and other hazards. The recent destruction wrought by Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas is the latest example of how vulnerable small island states are.
“So while much of the world does not treat global warming with the same sense of urgency, countries like ours have no choice but to act. Small island states have therefore taken the lead globally and are continuing to demand immediate action to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures – a goal of the landmark 2015 Paris climate agreement.”