June 10, 2020 / 10:28 AM / a month ago

Cash-short Caribbean confronts hurricane fears after COVID blow

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Severe thunderstorms in recent weeks over the Bahamas have revived memories of the death and destruction from Hurricane Dorian last year. Islanders are still struggling to recover from that shock as another hurricane season gets underway.

“We were just starting to see a little light at the end of that tunnel when COVID-19 started,” said Stephanie Ferguson, who runs a small customs brokerage firm on Grand Bahama island.

“A lot of people here have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). When they hear the rain, they lose it. And with the isolation and because of COVID, you really can’t hug each other,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

After Dorian, thousands of islanders still live in tents and makeshift shelters and rely on drinking water delivered by truck, while repairs on destroyed homes and hospitals continue.

Ashleigh Lockhart, an officer with aid agency Mercy Corps’ Grand Bahama economic recovery programme, said residents were trying to make sure their roofs were fixed, they had a safe place to stay and were stocked up on supplies.

All of that “has been difficult in advance of the hurricane season because of COVID”, she added.

‘THREE MONSTERS’

Coronavirus lockdowns have decimated the economies of small Caribbean island nations that depend heavily on tourism, hampering preparations this year for the hurricane season, which runs from June through November.

“It’s going to be crippling. Unemployment has already tripled during the COVID-19 outbreak,” said Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland.

“You have three monsters coming to you at the same time - the pandemic, climate disasters and an economic recession.”

Forecasters at Colorado State University expect a busier-than-normal Atlantic hurricane season in 2020, with four out of 16 predicted storms set to become major hurricanes, partly due to warming sea surface temperatures linked to climate change.

Caribbean nations, meanwhile, are experiencing ever more lethal hurricanes. Dorian, for example, ground to a halt and hovered over the Bahamas for two straight days.

“The climate crisis has posed an existential threat to the Caribbean region,” said Scotland, who was born in the island state of Dominica. “We know each season the threat gets more and more imminent.”

Before, a category-five hurricane would happen “once in a lifetime” but since 2000 “it’s happening every other year and the hurricanes are getting bigger and bigger”, Scotland said.

Small island developing states are responsible for just 1% of global carbon emissions but disproportionately suffer the effects of a warming climate that fuels more severe storms.

Flooding from storms is also affecting more land. Dorian left about 70% of the Bahamas submerged.

“That was flooding we had never seen before. Areas that were deemed safe... are now experiencing flooding,” said Lockhart.

“There are a lot of concerns about where really is safe to stay during these hurricanes,” she said, adding that some shelters were located in areas hit by floods last year.

DEBT-RIDDEN

Many Caribbean island nations are weighed down by debt, partly due to huge economic losses caused by hurricanes - a situation that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Countries in the region can sustain losses equal to 30-70% of their GDP when struck by big storms, Scotland said.

“In six hours, you’ve gone from a middle-income country to a no-income country,” she said.

Many climate-vulnerable Caribbean states that are classified as medium or high-income are excluded from debt relief and concessional loans offered by G20 countries and multilateral finance institutions, she noted, calling for that to change.

The eastern Caribbean nation of St. Lucia is among those affected by hurricanes in recent years. In 2010, Hurricane Tomas dumped the equivalent of three years of rain in just 48 hours, according to Prime Minister Allen Chastanet.

“We are at the battlefront of this issue,” Chastanet told an online event this month hosted by the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think-tank.

“The greatest threat that we have really is from the environment. Given our current financial situation, I think that COVID exacerbated an already very bad situation.”

To deal with the economic fallout of COVID-19 and resulting loss of tourism revenue, St. Lucia has borrowed $900 million, equivalent to 22% of its GDP, Chastanet said.

Some of that money will be used to fix up storm shelters so that evacuees can follow social distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, he added.

BUILDING RESILIENCE

Adapting infrastructure to withstand more severe weather is a key way to reduce the destruction storms bring.

That includes raising bridges, sinking underground utility wires and deeper drains, as well as stabilising mountainous slopes with meshing and rock-bolting to prevent landslides during torrential rains, Chastanet said.

“The solutions to building resilience are not complicated... What is limited is the inability of (Caribbean) countries to put the necessary monies upfront to deal with it,” he said.

International development banks and the Green Climate Fund, which provides finance for developing nations to tackle climate change, must make it easier for small island nations to access money for that purpose, Chastanet said.

“In the last four years, we’ve made very little inroads in improving our resilience to climate change,” he added.

Scotland said efforts had been stepped up to help small island states access international climate funding.

Through a Climate Finance Hub set up in 2016, advisors spread across Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean, Pacific and Africa help governments craft applications to the Green Climate Fund and other international donors.

The Commonwealth also plans to launch an online platform for its 54 member nations in the coming months that will collate information on how to access international funding to reduce disaster risks and support COVID-19 recovery.

Meanwhile in the Bahamas, Ferguson has moved her company’s office, which was destroyed during Dorian, to higher ground, helped by a $10,000 grant from Mercy Corps.

She hopes her business, which employs six people, will be spared this time around.

Ahead of the looming storms, islanders are stocking up on supplies, buying plywood to reinforce shutters, and readying evacuation plans that include having an axe, rope and life vest to hand in case they need to face floods.

“One of the things we’ve learned is don’t take it for granted,” said Ferguson. “Just prepare for the worst. And that’s all we plan to do.”

Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org

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