NEW YORK — As Caribbean islands brace themselves for this year’s hurricane season, many are still rebuilding and recovering from the devastating impacts of the record-breaking 2017 storms.
The task of preparing for a natural disaster while still recovering from one is both fragile in its uncertainty and monumental in the scope of necessary work. Comprehensive recovery and resilience efforts are beyond the capability of local governments, even with support from federal funding in the case of the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to experts from foundations and nonprofit organizations in the Caribbean.
“Only in the last six months has anyone been able to look up from their own recovery process across the region and see what is going on because there is so much to be done. We are still putting roofs on homes,” said Meaghan Enright, executive director of the St. John’s grassroots organization Love City Strong, in a phone interview. The group formed organically in 2017, following two category 5 hurricanes that displaced millions across the Caribbean, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
“Despite the fact that the national and international cameras have been redirected elsewhere in the world, the reality for us is that we are still 100% in the early stages of recovery.”— Deanna James, executive director, St. Croix Foundation for Community Development
Local leaders in Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, and the U.S. Virgin Islands approached the Clinton Foundation in 2017 after Hurricanes Maria and Irma — the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. “They asked, ‘Is there a way you can come and help us build back better?’” said Lisena DeSantis, CEO of the Clinton Global Initiative.
The new post-disaster recovery action network has an ambition to take the lead on recovery and climate preparedness work in the Caribbean.
The Clinton Foundation is one of the international organizations, along with the World Bank and Bloomberg Philanthropies, that has established a regular presence in the Caribbean since the 2017 hurricanes. Research shows that while climate change may not lead to more hurricanes, warming waters and rising sea levels could make storms more intense, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“I am hoping this is sort of a once in a lifetime experience, but I am also mindful that you just have to be ready,” said Dee-Baecher Brown, president of the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands in St. Thomas, in a phone interview. “We really want to be better than we were before the storms, not just back to where we were.”
The Clinton Foundation hosted its fourth action network meeting on post-disaster recovery in St. Thomas in June, helping facilitate 29 new action commitments on recovery and resilience work.
“We do not know what is going to happen in the 2019 hurricane season. These islands could be hit again and we could have a very different conversation at our next meeting. There is such a hunger we see among our action network participants to connect across borders and to find a safe space to do so,” DeSantis said.
To date, the Clinton Foundation has secured 86 post-disaster recovery commitments from foundations, governments and nonprofits that, when implemented, will result in 200,000 training opportunities,1,600 full-time jobs and 220 community facilities, among other work in the Caribbean. Many of the commitments are focused on resilience, but also go beyond the common buzzword, to center on economic development, capacity training, tourism, and clean economies, DeSantis noted.
“The focus on resiliency is really about recognizing the Caribbean region is on the frontlines of a broader war with climate change,” DeSantis told Devex. “If they are hit again, and resiliency is not part of the conversation, the ability for these islands to bounce back is really compromised.”
The island of Dominica suffered losses estimated at 226% of its GDP in the immediate aftermath of the storms. It is now undertaking a $300 million commitment to become the first “climate resilient” nation, in partnership with U.N. agencies, the World Bank Group, and others.
Ongoing engagement on recovery and resiliency from multiple actors is key, Deanna James, executive director of the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development, told Devex.
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St. Croix has seen an exodus of teachers, doctors, and nurses in the last several years, according to James. The island’s one hospital has not been fully rebuilt and people who require ongoing critical health care have migrated elsewhere.
“For all of us we are on a slippery slope,” James said. “Despite the fact that the national and international cameras have been redirected elsewhere in the world, the reality for us is that we are still 100% in the early stages of recovery.”
Groups such as Love City Strong have developed plans for a triage system to help streamline evacuations in Saint John, as well as agreements with restaurants and local contractors that could help fill in with emergency food and clean-up work if needed, according to Enright.
“What we realized is that there is a 5-7 day window, and you have to be ready to not have help from off the island for that long,” Enright said, referring to the period of time that communities need to be self-sufficient before help can arrive after a disaster.
“One of our goals has been to maintain a cache of knowledge … It is still important for the community to stay engaged in these conversations all year round and to be learning about what new technologies and knowledge there are for preparedness.”