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

After the devastating impacts of Hurricane Maria in 2017, Caribbean islands invested in measures to help communities bounce back from extreme weather

Roseau, the capital of the Caribbean island of Dominica, seen from the window of a government building the day after Hurricane Maria struck in 2017 (Photo: CREDIT/Flickr/Russell Watkins/DFID)


As tropical storm Elsa races towards the Caribbean, island states are bracing for dangerous winds and heavy rainfall. 

The National Hurricane Centre has said Elsa could develop into a category two hurricane over the next few days. It has broken the record for the earliest fifth-named storm of the year, likely heralding a busy Atlantic storm season.

After the devastating impacts of hurricanes Matthew in 2016 and Maria in 2017, Caribbean countries have invested heavily in resilience to weather extremes.

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

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

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

“We are waking up to the fact that we are in this hurricane belt and becoming more aware of what we have to do,” said Johnson.

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

Catastrophe bonds are financial instruments used by the insurance industry to transfer extreme risks from disasters to capital investors.

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

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

A member of a USAID-DART team surveys damage from Hurricane Matthew in Bag Bay in eastern Jamaica (Photo: Flickr/USAID-DART)

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

Many Caribbean countries find themselves in a vicious cycle of climate impacts and debt,” she said. After disasters, many countries take out loans, plunging them into more debt. “Then when another event happens, they cannot access the resources they need to recover.”

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

Small Caribbean states are excluded from a debt repayment holiday, which G20 nations have agreed to extend until December 2021, because they are designated middle-income countries. They have called for more support, arguing that the twin crises of coronavirus and climate change have left them “squeezed on all sides.” 

Kristalina Georgieva, head of the International Monetary Foundation, has said debt relief should be extended to  countries that are highly vulnerable to climate shocks. 

Without it, most Caribbean governments are not in a position to prioritise long-term investments in resilience. “They are very reactive to what happens – that is all they are able to do,” said Mills.

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But that is starting to change. Since category 5 hurricane Maria pummeled the Caribbean in 2017, many island states have got serious about resilience planning. 

“2017 marked a big turning point and was really important in terms of changing mindsets,” said Emily Wilkinson, a senior researcher at the UK Overseas Development Institute who specialises in global risks and resilience.

Before hurricane Maria hit, most Caribbean countries were primarily focused on emergency responsiveness, ensuring that evacuation routes and shelters were set up, Wilkinson told Climate Home News. 

The focus has shifted towards looking at the long term and securing the viability of these islands,” she said. “Finance ministers now see the issue of resilience and reducing disaster risk as critical to their economic strategies.” 

One of the Caribbean nations worst hit by hurricane Maria was Dominica. The small island state, which has just 70,000 residents, lost the equivalent of 226% of its GDP following Maria. Over 90% of homes were destroyed or damaged.

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Dominica’s government was determined to prevent future devastation of a similar scale. In 2018, it passed the Climate Resilience Act and set the goal of becoming the world’s first climate resilient nation, which is able to withstand hurricanes and other weather-related disasters, by 2030. To implement this, the government launched the Climate Resilience Execution Agency (CREAD)

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

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

Since 2015, Dominica has been building hurricane resilient homes which have concrete roofs, shatterproof windows and underground foundations. These homes did not suffer severe damage during hurricane Maria in 2017, said Baron.

The aim is to ensure communities can be self-sufficient for 14 days after a hurricane by supplying them with enough food, water and access to electricity. 

Much of Dominica’s population lives in physically vulnerable locations, such as near an eroding coastline or volcano. CREAD is looking at building new homes in less vulnerable areas. 

Hurricane-proof homes in Dominica (Photo: CREAD)

To achieve the 2030 goal, Dominica must ensure resilience lies at the heart of every sector and diversify its economy so that it “bounces forward after a catastrophic event,” said Baron. 

“Resilience is not just about buildings and infrastructure,” said Wilkinson, who serves as an advisor to CREAD. “It’s about the long-term, socioeconomic development of the country and ensuring that a hurricane cannot wipe out everything.”

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Dominica is piloting a blockchain insurance scheme that will pay out premiums to people when a storm hits. The country is also investing in high value agricultural exports, such as essential oils, to generate extra revenue, said Wilkinson. 

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 healthy coral reef coverage by 50% to protect its coastline and boost fish stocks. 

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

There is an estimated finance gap of around 2.5-3.5 billion ECD ($925million-$1.3 billion). 

Becoming climate resilient is a very expensive undertaking,” said Baron. “We rely on support from the international community.” Dominica has received some funding from the Canadian government and the UK department for international development. But it relies on much more international support to achieve its 2030 goal. 

The pandemic has impacted CREAD’s operations, with travel restrictions temporarily halting construction projects. “We have not been able to move as fast as we would have liked,” said Baron. But work continues and, despite pandemic challenges, Dominica has no plans to backtrack on its resilience plans. “It is not an option for us to become resilient, it is a must,” said Baron. 

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