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Reflections on Hurricanes Irma & Maria And What Caribbean Governments Need To Do To Bounce Back Stronger

It has been nearly two weeks since Hurricane Irma touched down on some Caribbean destinations. And before the cleanup has happened on the affected islands, Hurricane Maria comes charging in causing more damage to personal property and infrastructure across the Caribbean region. In total about 15 of the 35 of the developed Caribbean destinations have been hit by one or both of these two category five hurricanes. This includes Anguilla, Barbuda, British Virgin Islands, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico, Saint Barts, St Kitts & Nevis, Saint Martin, Saint Maarten, Turks & Caicos, US Virgin Islands.

The level of damage varies by Caribbean destinations, but on some, it is beyond catastrophic. For example, 95% of the buildings on Barbuda are damaged or destroyed resulting in over US$250million in damages. The result was a mandatory evacuation to sister island Antigua which had minimal damage from the storm. Another of the Caribbean destinations severely impacted is the British Virgin Islands which has been extremely unlucky having been battered by both Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria causing US$1.4billion+ in damages. In total, about US$15billion+ in damages to infrastructure and property has occurred in the Caribbean region as a direct result of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria. When you add in costs for the United States, the total is above US$62billion.

Path of Hurricane Irma & Hurricane Maria Map detailing the path of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria.

This level of destruction to infrastructure and personal property is a reminder that the most important thing in life is not materialistic things but family and friends. This viewpoint may sound harsh and unsympathetic when so many are without necessities and emotionally vulnerable, but the reality is that when Mother Nature roars at such a magnitude, we just have to take shelter with appropriate supplies and get out of her way. Materialistic possessions can be replaced, and essential services like electricity, running water and phone/internet access which makes life comfortable can eventually be restored; that is not the case with loved ones who may perish in these storms.

Full disclosure, I have never actually experienced a major Hurricane in the Caribbean; nor do I want to after seeing the recent destruction coupled with the shock and sheer desperation on people’s faces. However, my ninety-seven-year-old grand-aunt Nenen who lives in Montserrat has experienced quite a few and took them all in stride. In fact, when I called to make sure that she had taken the necessary preparations the night Hurricane Irma was to pass over Montserrat, she was sitting on the front porch keeping a watchful eye. She was cool, calm and collected.

Montserrat: Mongo Hill
A view of Mongo Hill in Montserrat where my great aunt Nenen lives.

Sure Nenen had someone board up the windows and secured furniture that was outside, but she wasn’t going to worry too much about the house because Mother Nature will do what Mother Nature wants to do. She has been through previous hurricanes like Hugo in 1989 which caused over $10 billion in damages and resulted in 107 people losing their lives, so she was not going to stress but leave it all in Gods’ hand. Nenen said this with such calm, while I was quietly panicking about the house and her safety but I now understand what she meant. Picking up the pieces and rebuilding after a catastrophic disaster is extremely difficult and is sure to be a roller coaster of emotions, but if that is what is in the cards, that is what will be once the storm passes.

Montserratians and Caribbean people, in general, are incredibly resilient so the majority will survive and thrive after these hurricanes pass through. It won’t be easy, but as we’ve seen from previous natural disasters, it will get done. That said, Caribbean governments need to do more so that they and their citizens can become better prepared for these natural disasters. The suggestions are not revolutionary, but they do require focus and dedication.

1. Investing In New Sectors To Reduce Reliance on Tourism Revenue

Top of the list is for Caribbean governments to look at ways to diversify their economies beyond tourism. A diversification of their economies is needed as it will take months if not years for some Caribbean destinations to rebuild never mind win back the confidence of tourists and it will be challenging for locals who are now not only without their homes and creature comforts but jobs to help them rebuild. Also, most tourists don’t have a good understanding of the geography of the Caribbean region and think all destinations are affected and so will look to book their vacation elsewhere. So the annual target of 30million visitors to the Caribbean region this year will not be met, and many of the Caribbean destinations not affected by these storms will have their economies damaged as they too rely heavily on tourism. So looking at sectors like Business Process Outsourcing which includes customer service centers is an area for growth. With proximity to major English speaking markets like the United States and Canada who have a growing need for these services, there is no reason why the Caribbean region can’t capture more market share in this industry worth US$140billion. Business Process Outsourcing and other investment opportunities will be on the agenda at the upcoming Outsource to the Caribbean Conference that will be held in Jamaica.

Map of the Caribbean Detailed map of the Caribbean.

2. Implementing A Natural Disaster Tax

Beyond the need to diversify their economies away from tourism, would recommend that Caribbean governments implement a natural disaster tax on both citizens and visitors to the Caribbean region. This may not be popular, but the reality is that getting access to international funds for rebuilding is becoming extremely difficult. Even Britain that is responsible for several of the islands affected is unable to use its £13billion aid budget to support the recovery efforts as islands like Anguilla, and the British Virgin Islands are deemed too wealthy to qualify for assistance under official international criteria. An estimated £57million (likely to increase to £100million) for cleanup and rebuilding will ultimately come from the United Kingdom’s general Treasury funds, but the fact that these British Overseas Territories don’t have immediate access to their own government’s international aid budget is preposterous.

3. Maximizing The Potential of Citizenship By Investment Programs

For those Caribbean destinations like Antigua & Barbuda and Dominica with Citizenship By Investment Programs, some of the money needs to be allocated to developing new sectors as outlined above. Also, a certain percentage of the revenue needs to be set aside in a secure fund for natural disasters. The reality is that climate change is real and these category five storms will continue to come, so an emergency reserve needs to be built up from the hundreds of millions raised each year through selling passports to high net worth individuals from across the globe. Finally, relationships with these new high net worth citizens must be nurtured as many have the capital to help rebuild or can hold fundraisers around the world drawing other high net worth individuals, which can make a massive difference.

St Kitts: View from Kittitian Hill
View from Kittitian Hill in St Kitts.

4. Support Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility

Another option is for Caribbean destinations not yet a member of the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility to sign up and remain in good standing. Currently, only 16 Caribbean countries and Nicaragua are members of this innovative fund, the first of its kind in the world. Created in 2007, its a “regional catastrophe fund for Caribbean governments to limit the financial impact of devastating hurricanes and earthquakes by quickly providing financial liquidity when a policy is triggered.” Not only can Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility draw on its resources, but it has access to over US$140million underwritten annually by reinsurers. This amount won’t cover all the damages from a major storm like Hurricane Irma, but the payouts can help jumpstart the cleanup and rebuilding. And since inception, US$100million has been paid out to member countries with approximately US$32million to six Caribbean destinations after Hurricane Irma. This total figure will go up after payouts are made for Hurricane Maria. With that, it’s necessary for Caribbean countries to join and not let their policy lapse which happened to The Bahamas in 2016 who missed out on a payout of US$32million after Hurricane Matthew hit them.

5. Developing Lasting Diaspora Programs

Another major initiative for Caribbean governments to work on as part of increasing readiness to deal with natural disasters is to develop proper diaspora programs and not take this core group for granted. This is important as the Caribbean diaspora plays a significant role in providing emergency aid and raising funds for rebuilding. They are also the ones most likely to return to the Caribbean region to visit in the aftermath of a major hurricane or another natural disaster. I think back to Hurricane Hugo in 1989 when over 90% of the homes in Montserrat were severely damaged. At the time I was a sophomore at the University of Michigan, so honestly, I wasn’t paying much attention. But I do recall that in the subsequent months and years, my mom like other members of the diaspora sent many barrels with supplies to Montserrat. She also sent a significant amount of money to help family members rebuild. And when it came to vacations, there wasn’t even a passing thought that she would go elsewhere. For her and many in the diaspora, it was heart over head. Thus whereas others not closely connected to the island might have walked away, that was never an option even though she was living in Boston and could have said out of sight, out of mind. Her connection to Montserrat was so high that she went above and beyond. Many in the Caribbean diaspora do the same thing, so just imagine what can be achieved if a development plan was put in place to harness the intellectual and financial resources of the diaspora and not wait for a natural disaster to mobilize. Similarly, the tourism divisions need to actively market to this core group as second and third generation Caribbean people in the United States of America, Canada, and the United Kingdom do not have the same loyalty when it comes to booking vacations as prior generations. Thus especially during these difficult times, the marketing message needs to speak to them with a view that they will come to and bring their own families and friends.Curacao: Daytime view of picturesque Willemstad Daytime view of picturesque Willemstad the capital city of Curaçao.

6. Build Stronger Structures

Redevelopment of the Caribbean destinations affected by Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria will require a Marshall Plan of sorts, same as after World War II when much of Europe was flattened. With the redevelopment, greater consideration needs to be given to where buildings are placed, and the building codes need to tighten. As it stands, most modern structures in the Caribbean built after Hurricane Hugo in 1989 have been constructed to withstand wind speeds of between 154mph – 180mph, depending on the location and type of building. Both Hurricane Imra and Hurricane Maria had wind speeds of 185mph and at their height were a category 5+ based on the Saffir–Simpson hurricane wind scale. Making landfall at this full strength had previously been rare, but we have to think that this is going to be the new norm. So new structures need to go above and beyond existing building codes, especially the roofs because failure to do so will most likely result in a repeat of the widespread catastrophic damage. So better to make the smart investment now instead of having to pay again and again in the future.

7. Greater Collaboration Between Caribbean Destinations on Climate Change

The final point is that Caribbean governments via the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) a member grouping of 20 Caribbean countries, need to start working more closely together on dealing with global warming. This is necessary as while the Caribbean contributes little to the release of the greenhouse gases that drive climate change; they are on the front lines dealing with its effects. As we’ve seen recently, hotter temperatures, rising sea-levels, and increased hurricane intensity is threatening lives, property, infrastructure, and livelihoods throughout the Caribbean region. The Paris Climate Agreement which seeks to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is now in effect, and so it’s time to move beyond attending climate change conferences and writing up reports that just get filed away. It’s time to take collective action and build on the findings from the Caribbean Regional Strategic Program for Climate Resistance funded in part by the US$8.3billion Climate Investment Funds (CIF).

Barbados: Bottom Bay beach A view of Bottom Bay Beach in Barbados.

The above suggestions require major government involvement, so what can we do as individuals to help the Caribbean region? Well to start, we can support one or more of the fundraising efforts. Top of the list is the Relief Fund set up by the Caribbean Tourism Organization who are the region’s tourism development agency.  Another one to consider donating to is the Caribbean Hurricane Tourism Recovery Fund which is a partnership between the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association and Tourism Cares.
There are also many individual funds for each country affected, with the most successful one is the US Virgin Island Relief Fund set up by former NBA star Tim Duncan who grew up in the US Virgin Islands. Other options to donate are detailed at How You Can Help the Islands You Love.

Beyond donating, we can all support the Caribbean region by visiting. So if your vacation is next year, hold off and not cancel.  See how things develop in the next few months. Plus as previously mentioned, only 15 of the 35 developed Caribbean destinations have been impacted, and not all of these were leveled like Barbuda. As confirmed via Caribbean Travel Update, many like Antigua and St Kitts & Nevis that were impacted are now open for business after cleanup. But if these scare you off, in the immediate term, consider visiting Northern Caribbean destinations like Jamaica, Barbados, Saint Lucia, and Grenada. None of these have been impacted by Hurricane Irma or Hurricane Maria. Also, Caribbean destinations like Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao and Trinidad & Tobago which lie south of the hurricane belt and are great options for this time of year. With that, see you in the Caribbean. I’m off to Grenada mid-October where I’ll be exploring the spice island and also attending a portion of the Caribbean Tourism Organization State of the Industry Conference (SOTIC 2017). Attended by Caribbean government and private sector stakeholders, the theme this year’s conference is “Super-Charing the Caribbean Brand: Meeting The Needs Of The New Explorers.”

Grenada: hog island
A view of view of hog island beach in Grenada.

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UPB at Antigua Carnival 2019.
I'm Ursula!

Welcome to Caribbean & Co. founded by Ursula Petula Barzey who enjoys traveling the Caribbean in search of the best cultural and food adventures, places to stay and live/work opportunities. Launched in 2014, Caribbean & Co. has won five travel media awards.

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