As Elsa heralds a busy hurricane season, Caribbean states rely on resilience plans

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After the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria in 2017, the Caribbean islands invested in measures to help communities recover from extreme weather conditions

As Tropical Storm Elsa heads into the Caribbean, island states brace themselves for dangerous winds and heavy rainfall.

The National Hurricane Center said Elsa could become a Category Two hurricane in the next few days. He broke the record for the first storm in the fifth name of the year, probably harbinger a busy Atlantic storm season.

After the devastating effects of Hurricanes Matthew in 2016 and Maria in 2017, Caribbean countries have invested heavily in resilience to extreme weather events.

When Matthew hit Jamaica it caused severe flooding, destroyed roads and cut off entire communities, said Lehome Johnson, who heads the country climate data and information project, which was launched in 2015 to improve forecasting of extreme events such as hurricanes.

Five years later, despite the enormous pressures created by the pandemic, he said the country was better prepared for such major storms.

“The country is in a better place to be able to act faster,” Johnson told Climate Home News. This is partly because of more reliable weather forecasts and early warning systems, but also because the government is prioritizing insurance schemes to cover extreme weather damage.

“We are realizing that we are in this hurricane belt and are becoming more aware of what we need to do,” Johnson said.

This month, the Jamaican government is expected to launch a catastrophe bond (CAT) to increase financial resilience to climatic shocks.

Catastrophe bonds are financial instruments used by the insurance industry to transfer tail risk from catastrophes to capital investors.

Facilitated by the World Bank and funded by the UK, Germany and the US, the CAT bond will help cover economic losses in the event of a major catastrophic event, such as a hurricane. According to the financial news agency Artemis, the launch of the CAT bond is “imminent”.

In recent years, “Jamaica has given a lot of thought to developing a disaster risk financing strategy and financial mechanisms that will help protect the country in the event of an extreme event,” Anitee Mills, climate consultant to the Jamaican government, told Climate Home News.

A member of a USAID-DART team studies the damage caused by Hurricane Matthew in Bag Bay in eastern Jamaica (Photo: Flickr / USAID-DART)

Financial support to help island states recover from climate-related disasters is urgently needed, Mills said.

Many Caribbean countries find themselves in a vicious cycle of climate impact and debt, ”she said. After disasters, many countries take out loans, pushing them into more debt. “Then when another event occurs, they can’t access the resources they need to recover. “

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated this situation, causing tourism revenues to drop and debt soaring in the Caribbean.

Small Caribbean states are excluded from a debt repayment leave, which the G20 countries have agreed to extend until December 2021, as they are designated as middle-income countries. They called for more support, arguing that the dual crisis of coronavirus and climate change has left them “stuck on all sides”.

Kristalina Georgieva, Director of the International Monetary Foundation, said debt relief should be extended countries very vulnerable to climatic shocks.

Without it, most governments in the Caribbean are unable to prioritize long-term investments in resilience. “They’re very responsive to what’s going on – that’s all they’re able to do,” Mills said.

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But that is starting to change. Since Category 5 Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean in 2017, many island states have taken resilience planning seriously.

“2017 was a turning point and was very important in changing mindsets,” said Emily Wilkinson, senior researcher at the UK Overseas Development Institute, specializing in global risks and resilience.

Prior to Hurricane Maria, most Caribbean countries focused primarily on emergency responsiveness, ensuring evacuation routes and shelters were in place, Wilkinson told Climate Home News .

The focus has shifted to a long term vision and securing the viability of these islands, ”she said. “Finance ministers now see the issue of resilience and disaster risk reduction as central to their economic strategies. ”

One of the Caribbean countries hardest hit by Hurricane Maria was Dominica. The small island state, which has a population of just 70,000, has lost its the equivalent of 226% of its GDP following Mary. More than 90% of the houses were destroyed or damaged.

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The government of Dominica was determined to prevent future devastation of a similar magnitude. In 2018 he spent the Climate Resilience Act and set itself the goal of becoming the world’s first climate resilient country capable of resisting hurricanes and other weather disasters by 2030. To implement this, the government launched the Climate Resilience Executing Agency (CREAD).

90% of Dominica’s homes were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Maria (Photo: Flickr / USAID-DART)

“Climate resilience is essential to the survival of Dominica,” Francine Baron, CEO of CREAD and the country’s former foreign minister, told Climate Home News.

Since 2015, Dominica has been building hurricane-resistant homes with concrete roofs, shatter-proof windows and underground foundations. These homes did not suffer serious damage during Tropical Storm Erica in 2017, Baron said.

CREAD equips communities to be self-sufficient for 14 days after a hurricane by placing power cables underground and providing them with enough food and water.

About 50% of Dominica’s population live in physically vulnerable places, such as near a coastline or an eroding volcano. CREAD plans to move the houses to safer areas inland.

Hurricane-proof homes in Dominica (Photo: CREAD)

To reach the 2030 target, Dominica must ensure that resilience is at the heart of every sector and diversify its economy so that it “bounces back from a catastrophic event,” Baron said.

“Resilience isn’t just about buildings and infrastructure,” said Wilkinson, who serves as advisor to CREAD. “It’s about the long-term socio-economic development of the country and ensuring that a hurricane cannot erase everything.”

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Dominica is piloting a blockchain insurance program that will pay premiums to people in the event of a storm and invest in high-value agricultural exports, such as essential oils, to generate additional income.

Investing in nature is also an important part of CREAD’s strategy. By 2030, Dominica aims to increase its forest cover to 67% and increase its coverage of healthy coral reefs by 50% to protect its coastline and increase fish stocks.

Dominica needs approximately 8.2 to 9.8 billion Eastern Caribbean dollars (ECD) (3 to 3.6 billion dollars) to become resilient to climate change by 2030. Since Hurricane Maria, the government spent 2 billion DPE ($ 740 million) on critical infrastructure and other resilience measures.

There is a funding gap estimated at around 2.5 to 3.5 billion DPE ($ 925 million to $ 1.3 billion).

Becoming climate resilient is a very expensive endeavor, ”said Baron. “We are counting on the support of the international community. Dominica has received funding from the Canadian government and the UK Department for International Development. “But it’s not as much as we need.”

The pandemic has impacted CREAD’s operations, temporarily halting construction projects. “We couldn’t go as fast as we would have liked,” said Baron. But the work continues, and despite the challenges of the pandemic, Dominica has no plans to reverse its resilience plans. “It’s not an option for us to become resilient, it’s a must,” said Baron.

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