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Paradise lost: How Hurricane Irma will change the Caribbean

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FOR three days in early September Hurricane Irma ground through the eastern Caribbean like a bulldozer made out of wind and rain. Tropical breezes became 300kph (185mph) blasts, turning “tin roofs into flying razor blades”, as Maarten van Aalst of the Red Cross put it. Placid seas reared up in giant waves and rainwater coursed through streets. Even when the sun eventually came out the nightmare did not end. Shortages of food and water sparked looting on some islands. Survivors were grateful that fewer than 50 people, at last count, died in the Caribbean, but Irma’s fury left thousands homeless in the 13 island countries and territories in its path, including Cuba. Entire settlements were wiped off the map.

Most islanders want above all to return to normal life as fast as possible, which for many means reopening the hotels, bars, restaurants, surfing schools and the like that are the region’s economic lifeblood. Authorities on St Barthélemy, a territory that belongs to France, talk of reopening in time to catch part of peak tourist season, which starts in December.

 But business as usual will not come back as quickly as the islanders hope. After Hurricane Ivan struck Grenada in 2004, tourism fell to 10% of its pre-storm level in the island’s first high season. Annual GDP dropped by 24%, though it recovered after that. The costs of rebuilding will be staggering. France’s public insurance agency estimates that it will cost €1.2bn ($1.4bn) to repair infrastructure in St Barthélemy and the French half of St Martin, an island of 75,000 people that France divides with the Netherlands. More than two-thirds of structures on St Martin were damaged or destroyed; on Barbuda nearly all were wrecked. In all, rebuilding the ruins in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico, will cost nearly $13bn, according to the Centre for Disaster Management and Risk Reduction Technology in Germany.

Just putting back what the storm took away will not be enough this time. Irma was the first category-five hurricane to strike some of the islands but it is unlikely to be the last. Global warming makes such storms stronger, and it raises sea levels, which add to their destructiveness. They will strike hardest at the playgrounds on which the region’s prosperity depends. The Caribbean is more reliant on tourism than any other region; the industry is responsible directly and indirectly for more than 2m jobs. If the region is to prosper in the long run, governments will have to do more to protect coastlines and strengthen buildings and infrastructure.

Living life the easy way

The islands have been slow to do that. “Caribbean governments speak a lot about climate change but their actions leave a lot to be desired,” says Ottis Joslyn of the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC), a body set up by the region’s governments to help countries adapt. The centre urges governments to protect poor people (for example by replacing fragile houses with sturdier ones), shift to renewable energy and avoid development that damages coastlines. A few countries have made progress. Barbados has an agency that oversees development on the coast. But this is an exception.

Three main barriers get in the way. The first is that weather patterns are changing faster than scientists and policymakers expected. In 2012, in a project paid for by the World Bank and the government of St Lucia, a CCCCC team built a “climate-smart” shelter with a “hurricane-strapped roof”, impact-resistant windows and a backup generator. It was supposed to be a model. But it can only withstand a category-three storm. Irma would have destroyed it.

The second obstacle is short-term thinking, which encourages fast economic growth but neglects climate-change planning. St Martin offers a good example. A tourism boom that began in the 1980s attracted immigrants (the population of the French side rose from less than 8,000 in 1982 to 38,000 in 2005). The newcomers crowded into shantytowns where building codes were not enforced, says Virginie Duvat, a French geographer who wrote a study of the island in 2008. Failure to enforce the rules, and lack of planning and investment,exposed the population to hurricane hazards, she wrote. After Irma, many of the island’s homeless realise that.

The third barrier is lack of money. Most Caribbean islands are not poor. With GDP per person of nearly $9,000 on average, the independent island states qualify as middle- and high-income countries. But most have high levels of public debt and many have suffered from a decline in prices of agricultural goods. Their small populations mean that the cost per person of building and upgrading infrastructure is high. And when a catastrophe occurs it can be massive. A disaster like Irma “wipes out the economy in one fell swoop”, says Rawleston Moore, who represented Barbados in negotiating the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Donors outside the region contribute to its short-termism. Money pours in to alleviate the effects of a disaster, but not to prepare islands for future ones. Regional insurance schemes are a small step in the right direction (see article). Caribbean governments hope that rich countries will provide money to adapt to climate change under the Paris climate agreement, signed in 2015. They have joined other “small island developing states” to argue that industrialised countries, which have been emitting carbon dioxide longer than developing countries, and continue to emit more of it per person, should compensate them for losses and damage caused by extreme weather. (That said, Trinidad and Tobago, in the southern Caribbean, is one of the world’s biggest emitters per person.)

The rich have promised to contribute $100bn a year by 2020 to establish a “green climate fund” to pay for developing countries to reduce their carbon-dioxide emissions and to adapt to warming. So far, though, the fund has raised just $10bn. It is not clear where the rest will come from and just how it will be spent. Bangladesh, which is poorer and more populous than the Caribbean, and is deluged every year, looks to some donors like a worthier beneficiary than, say, Antigua and Barbuda.

Rich countries have resisted the idea that they bear unique responsibility for climate change and should pay compensation to countries that suffer from it. Besides, it is hard to figure out what part of the damage from bad weather comes from global warming, what nature would have done anyway and how much responsibility developing countries bear for poor planning and shoddy construction. “Are 10% of Irma’s losses due to climate change and the rest to the natural phenomenon? Twenty percent? It’s hard to put a number on it,” says Peter Hoeppe of Munich Re, a reinsurance company.

Unchecked, global warming could overwhelm the efforts of even the most far-sighted island governments to adapt to it. That may force people to leave. Hurricanes between 1980 and 2004 were followed by upticks in migration to the United States, according to a new study by two economists at the University of Michigan. A one-metre rise in sea levels would displace more than 100,000 people from 15 Caribbean countries. The islanders are coming back after Irma. Her grandchildren could drive them away.

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Julio Marchi ©

Publisher / Editor at BS News & Media Services
A free thinker, not labelled as anything, not associated with any party, not part of any group or engaged with any religion... A simple guy tired of the nowadays bullshit who decided to promote more serious debates about what is really happening hoping to bring back intelligence to the superficial and shallow news & headlines that unfortunately took over the existing media scene.
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