Large-scale hurricane relief needed for the Caribbean

It is heartening to see the extent to which generosity, hard work and strategizing are being invested to bring material relief and moral support to the populations of the Caribbean countries and territories devastated by the current series of hurricanes.

It is therefore not surprising that some media houses have publicized the suggestion of a “Caribbean Marshall Plan” put forward by Richard Branson, the British billionaire who was in his home in the British Virgin Islands when Hurricane Irma struck.

That suggestion highlights the need for massive infrastructure restoration and economic re-development, in order for these severely weakened Caribbean societies to achieve a decent level of socio-economic life in the long term.

The billion-dollar question here is obvious. Where and how can the Caribbean mobilize the financial, material and entrepreneurial resources required to realize such an ambitious plan for relief, repair and economy upgrade?

So far, various forms of assistance are flowing in from those Caribbean countries and territories that have suffered little or no damage. The UK, the USA and the European Union are also ramping up their aid activities.

Here in Canada, attention is being focused on the need for emergency relief. Numerous individuals, community organizations and Caribbean Consulates in the Greater Toronto Area are busying themselves collecting cash and in-kind donations such as non-perishable food, water and a range of items for babies.

Also included in these Diaspora efforts are fundraising concerts. In one such venture, the Caribana Arts Group (CAG) has joined forces with the Phoenix Concert Theatre and well-known Toronto DJs to put on a show billed as “Caribbean Relief and Rhythms”.

But all of those regional and international initiatives do not adequately address the historical reality of the annual hurricane season in the Caribbean and the strong indications that climate change may be causing an increase in the frequency and intensity of tropical storms and hurricanes in the region.

One large-scale measure that has already been identified but not sufficiently acted upon is the strengthening of the financial, technical and professional resources of the two agencies responsible for the prevention and mitigation of disasters in the region: the Caribbean Disaster Management Agency (CODEMA) and the Association of Caribbean States (ACS). This strengthening may be done through the United Nations’ funding for  the special needs of small island developing states (SIDS) that are environmentally and economically vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters.

On a smaller scale, our Diaspora communities need to develop and institutionalize a model for our disaster relief initiatives. Why do we keep re-inventing the wheel every year, in so many of our disaster relief ventures?

There is at least one more major strategy that deserves even more attention: the significant upgrading of the building codes and the standards for physical infrastructure (roads and bridges; electrical and energy facilities; drainage systems; health and educational institutions; air and sea ports; and military and security facilities. In the words of Richard Bronson:

“This will have to include building resilience against what is likely to be a higher intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, as the effects of climate change continue to grow.”

For that very reason, many of the buildings in the American State of Florida were being constructed in recent decades with the stated objective of making them capable of withstanding the impact of winds with speeds as high as 250 miles per hour. It has also been determined that the physical impact of winds is even more forceful at the upper levels of high-rise buildings.

It is therefore not by chance that in the French island of Martinique, as early as in the 1960’s, more and more homes and commercial buildings were being built with concrete roofs. The tradition of galvanized zinc roofs was literally being tossed out, after years and years of bad experiences with hurricanes and storms.

Simply put, prevention is better than cure.

Similarly, established international policies and plans, along with tried and tested models for the management of disaster relief initiatives, are efficient and effective forms of preparation.