Two threats together in 2020: Hurricanes and COVID-19
When it comes to the annual hurricane season, Dominica and the rest of the Caribbean are like prisoners on death row. We sit in our cells, waiting, hoping, praying: but eventually our date with the hangman comes, and unless there is a miracle, the nooses around our necks tighten, our bodies stiffen and life itself is threatened.
That's life in Dominica, the land of storms and hurricanes. Since the beginning of time, there has been the threat of hurricanes and storms like clockwork every year, but lately these storms have become angry, raging bulls. And deadlier.
What can we do about it?
This year's hurricane season started on Monday, 1st June and as usual the fear and uncertainty really begins. But one thing is sure: almost everyone agrees that Dominica's infrastructure and agricultural sectors cannot sustain another category five hurricane like Maria in 2017, or even a tropical storm, like Erika in 2015.
Unfortunately, however, the consensus among environmentalists and disaster risk management experts is that Dominica is even more vulnerable to hurricanes and tropical storms than it was in August 2015 when Tropical Storm Erika caused more than a billion dollars in damage, killed dozens and wiped out the village of Petite Savanne forever. Or Maria on September 18, 2017 that killed 31 people and caused more than US$930 million in damaged homes, bridges and other infrastructure. This is definitely not good enough since the scars left by Maria are as raw and fresh as it was almost two years ago.
And the forecast for the 2020 hurricane season is not encouraging. The Colorado State University (CSU) Tropical Meteorology Project outlook headed by Dr. Phil Klotzbach updated its forecast last Thursday, calling for an above-average number of named storms with 14 expected. A below-average number of major hurricanes – two – are also anticipated. The forecasters expect 11 to 17 named storms – including April's Tropical Storm Arlene. Five to nine of the named storms could become hurricanes and two to four major hurricanes. Any one of these storms could affect Dominica.
As the Sun stated in an earlier editorial, Dominicans seem to have adopted a laissez- faire attitude to preparation for hurricanes. Almost everyone, it seems, wait until the forecasters predict a direct hit on Dominica and then they rush to the supermarkets and gas stations. That, of course, is not good enough.
Given our experiences over the years, the most traumatic being Hurricane David in 1979, tropical storm Erika in 2015 and Maria in 2017, one would expect Dominica to be much better prepared for the impact of hurricanes and other natural disasters. But most islands of the Caribbean, including Dominica, seem to have adopted a fatalistic attitude towards hurricanes. They blow our way every year anyway so there is not much, we seem to have concluded, that we can do about them. We are wrong.
Based on our record of poor management of hazards, Dominica may be in for a rude awakening in 2020.
The point we wish to make is that our laissez- faire attitude to disaster management is not due to a lack of knowledge and experience. We seem to be devoid of the political will to take the necessary action to be better prepared for the impact of natural disasters caused by hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanoes. It would appear that we give serious thought to natural disasters only at the point when disasters are about to strike but during the rest of the year we ignore essential institutions such as the Office of Disaster Preparedness. A few years ago the disaster management office was stripped of its experienced technical staff and recently we heard of the resignation of two of the top executives of CREAD, the agency that Government created specifically to make Dominica the world's first climate resilient country, if ever that was possible.
In spite of the fact that hurricanes have become a statistical certainty in the region our governments have not prepared as adequately as one would expect. For instance, adequate insurance coverage for the tourism sector, or for any sector for that matter, is still a major concern. Additionally, for decades agricultural economists have suggested various insurance schemes for agriculture, the life blood of our economies, but our efforts to implement them have been sporadic and inadequate. WINCROP, the old Windward Islands banana insurance scheme, has died along with the banana industry and few people are talking about that insurance scheme these days as if the banana industry was the only sector of the agriculture industry that needed insurance protection.
Of course, most persons will agree with the fact that we have made tremendous strides in the use of early warning systems which have developed rapidly due to advances in modern technology such as computers and other communications technology. We have also developed a network of international partners who are apparently always prepared to provide hurricane relief to ameliorate human suffering. But it is foolhardy to depend too much on these agencies, given the current economic crisis and the increased competition for international aid.
Fortunately, not every country in the region has taken that fatalistic attitude towards natural disasters. Though it has not been hit by a major hurricane for more than 50 years, Barbados, for example, seems to be taking serious lessons from the misfortune of its neighbours by improving its disaster management systems.
In addition, as we have stated on numerous occasions, we need to look towards Cuba for lessons in the practical application of the national disaster planning. In fact, the United Nations disaster relief agency has described Cuba as the best prepared country for natural disasters in the world. The elements of the island's preparedness include extensive training, community planning and intensive simulation drills. In addition, Cuba has a world-class meteorological institute with branches in 15 provinces.
We need to learn from these countries and from our most recent experiences and our government and village councils must take the lead.
We hope that in 2020 the Government of Dominica and the various village councils will make a rigorous effort at preparation for disasters. Because of Maria, many areas in Dominica cannot endure even moderate rainfall and, unquestionably, not a hurricane or a tropical storm.
And the current COVID-19 pandemic will undoubtedly complicate matters for everyone during the hurricane season. One of the main concerns is how do we protect our elders, who are very susceptible to COVID-19, in crowded hurricane shelters. Another is the current state of the economy- the government of Dominica and the majority of the residents do not have readily available cash to adequately prepare, and recover from hurricanes or tropical storms.