When climate change and nature clash, the results can range from crisis to catastrophe – and the Caribbean has been suffering the results of both of these the past few weeks as it faces its deadliest hurricane season in living memory.
Hurricane Maria was the 15th tropical depression to hit the region during this year’s annual hurricane season, preceded by Hurricanes Irma and Jose.
Irma packed the strongest winds at 185 mph for the longest period as a Category 5 storm, exacting damage from Florida and Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Antigua and Barbuda, all the way to the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, as well as the French and Dutch Antilles.
Hurricane Harvey had earlier hit Texas hard and Jose hit Mexico smack in the middle of two deadly earthquakes, leaving over 250 dead (and still counting), the full extent of death and destruction still being assessed.
The three powerful systems that have hit so far in 2017 that have taken at least 60 lives, left hundreds of thousands living in limbo and millions simply glad to be alive.
Together, Irma, Jose and Maria wrought inestimable damage on smaller islands, leaving 90 percent of homes damaged in Barbuda, 98 percent of Dominica roofless and Puerto Rico almost completely off the electrical grid.
Mopping-up and recovery exercises are taking place in Cuba, the Bahamas, Turks & Caicos Islands, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Saint Lucia and Barbados, while the situation is still dire in Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Anguilla, Saint Martin, Saint Bartholomew, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands.
Dominica, Barbuda and Saint Martin bore beatings like never before; and even while Maria blew away after switching Puerto Rico off, it was clear that it will take long years before the Caribbean recovers from this triple hurricane hit.
Bad Report Card…
But the response of the European states to the ravages of a region they colonized for centuries and still retain strong dominion links over has come under rare scrutiny – and their report card still doesn’t look good.
The U.K., France and the Netherlands all still have colonies in the Caribbean, while the U.S. colonies include the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. But in all cases, the response has been the same: little and late – even too little, too late.
The European and U.S. governments reacted. But their kneejerk reactions strongly suggested they were caught off guard – when they shouldn’t have been at all, in a situation where hurricanes are annual in this region – and getting progressively worse with growing climate change.
The result: homeless islanders remain helpless, wondering what next – while their leaders plead helplessly for help from a world that has traditionally offered more expressions of sympathy and condolence than the type of quick response emergency help essential for survival.
The response of the international community – especially European states with colonial linkages – also started coming under scrutiny.
Before Irma hit, the U.S. administration had already approved emergency measures to allow Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to receive FEMA assistance.
After Irma, French and Dutch troops were dispatched with relief assistance, while the top Dutch envoy at the United Nations called on the international body to help the battered islands.
Netherlands Ambassador to the U.N. Karel van Oosterom called on the 193-member body – then due to meet son in New York – to “provide assistance and compassion” to the region after being visited by Irma.
The U.N. dispatched teams to Barbados to assist the Caribbean Emergency Disaster Response Agency – and to Haiti as well.
President Emmanuel Macron established an emergency unit in Paris and visited France’s island colonies. The Dutch king also visited Saint Martin, which the Netherlands shares ownership and control of with France.
The U.K.'s Prime Minister Theresa May, whose country has the most affected colonies, was too busy batting Brexit blues to fly off to see the catastrophic damage visited on the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Turks and Caicos Islands.
But the U.K.’s response to the worst hurricanes to hit its remaining island colonies since the 1920s came under quite some flack.
British International Development Secretary Priti Patel said London had redeployed troops from the Mediterranean to take supplies to the U.K.'s island territories.
But residents in Anguilla – a small island that revolted five decades ago in 1967, leading to dispatch of British Royal Special Air Services troops to put down the revolution – accused London of treating them like lesser British citizens.
Dorothea Hodge, former Anguilla representative to Britain and the European Union, said: “Anguillans are all British nationals, as British as the Falkland or Gibraltar.”
She said in comparison to France’s response, Britain’s was “absolutely pathetic.”
Helpful, but inadequate…
But while the criticisms have so far surrounded the timeliness of the European and American governments’ responses, not much has been said about the help actually offered to the battered island nations and colonies with which they have had centuries of historical colonial links that started with slavery and ended with independence in the 20th century.
British, French, Dutch and American troops and craft have been deployed, but their missions are limited to mainly security duties and distribution of relief supplies that are, at best, helpful but inadequate.
The islands have historically had to actually beg for hurricane relief every year, with the same slow response to each disaster from the same donor countries, most of which seem more interested in registering their support than actually delivering help in amounts and ways needed and means that best matter.
The rules re-written by the world's richest countries actually now prevent the small island nations destroyed by hurricanes from qualifying for assistance from the very nations that profited from slavery and colonialism on their shores.
The yardstick used by the likes of the Western-dominated Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to measure the qualification for assistance is "Gross National Income Per Capita," which, when applied in figures, places the likes of Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Dominica, St. Kitts and Nevis in a bracket that says they can seek after themselves.
London's recent appeal to the OECD for assistance for the British islands hit by Irma was turned down – based on rules it agreed to.
But even without OECD help, London could have (and can still) directly help its remaining and former colonies
British Overseas Development Secretary Priti Patel's response to Irma was solicited by the press – and it was nothing near the early (even though still insufficient) response of her French and Dutch counterparts.
But clearly, the interest of small islands and poor developing countries is the farthest from the minds of those planning how the riches from the world’s resource profits are distributed – and with who in mind.
Time to re-think…
It’s now clear the time has come for the Caribbean to break with tradition and re-think its approach to the annual hurricane season.
Regional institutions have established mechanisms for addressing natural disasters and man-made emergencies. But in most cases, while they advocate caution and prevention, their activities are mainly aimed at rescue and recovery.
The Caribbean Development Bank has reduced the time taken to release emergency funding assistance and a regional insurance scheme has also been developed to quickly process claims.
But experts examining the region’s annual emergency responses with wider microscopic vision are insisting that the region’s governments are wrongly seeking a quick cure without assessing the causes and symptoms of the problem.
Two University of the West Indies researchers, Levi Gahman and Gabrielle Things, writing in ‘The Guardian; on September 20, 2017, say that apart from the geographic and seismological issues involved, “Climate Change, Inequality and Underdevelopment” all increase the Caribbean’s vulnerability to disasters.
They are therefore urging that region’s planners look at issues such as “Risk, Vulnerability and Poverty” to better understand the real nature of the problems and thus be better able to search for and find solutions.
The two researchers say the prescriptions call for vulnerable communities to be identified and their socio-economic conditions improved on a day-to-day basis – and not only prepare them to survive a hurricane.