The Atlantic hurricane season is entering what has historically been its period of peak intensity, and Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), year in and year out, have been caught in the middle of it. More than 300 storms swept through the region between 2000 and 2019 at an average of 17 per year, and the cumulative human and economic cost of this almost 20-year onslaught is staggering, with 29 million people in Haiti, Cuba and Mexico absorbing the impact of 110 storms that killed 5,000 of them and destroyed $39 billion worth of homes and infrastructure.
Many of the nations in this region are still developing, and the continual reset required after multiple disasters has severely impacted their growth, with some storms engulfing entire economies. Developing island nations often suffer the worst. Hurricane Maria took 225% of Dominica’s GDP in 2017. Hurricane Ivan took over 200% of Grenada’s in 2004. As for Latin America, disaster risk management expert Joaquin Toro, speaking with The World Bank in 2017, cites 30 years of decreased development in Honduras and Nicaragua since Hurricane Mitch struck in 1998. Here are five ways to help Latin America and the Caribbean not only survive but thrive during hurricane season.
Sovereign Parametric Insurance
In 2007, 19 Caribbean and three Central American nations formed the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRF SPC), a network of mutual relief based on an innovative form of disaster insurance known as sovereign parametric insurance. Financial payouts from this sort of insurance are much quicker because they are based not on damage assessments once a disaster has already occurred, but as soon as people experience certain weather conditions (rainfall, modeled damage, wind speed). While not adequate by itself to protect vulnerable countries during hurricane season, the World Resources Institute sees them as a valuable tool when combined with other forms of financial assistance.
For instance, when Hurricane Irma struck the Caribbean in 2017, CCRF SPC automatically paid roughly $15.6 million in relief to the nations of Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla and St. Kitts & Nevis.
Advanced Weather Forecasting
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) not only collaborates with weather experts in vulnerable countries to help predict disasters using advanced prediction models like the Flash Flood Guidance System but also helps those nations develop their own methods for advanced warning, allowing them to rally the necessary resources and evacuate people in time. In collaboration with NOAA, it is currently helping Barbados, Curacao and the Dominican Republic develop their own automated weather systems using low-cost methods like 3-D printing.
Emergency Stockpiles and Effective Donations
When disaster strikes, USAID can quickly airlift essential supplies like blankets and hygiene kits to affected nations, drawing upon emergency stockpiles in Miami and the Caribbean. 17,000 Central Americans were provided with shelter in the aftermath of Hurricanes Eta and Iota in 2020, thanks to heavy-duty plastic sheeting provided from these stockpiles. The agency’s Center for International Disaster Information also helps the public make donations through the proper channels so that affected countries do not turn supplies away and so that no one prevents them from leaving the U.S. entirely because of the high cost of transporting them.
Resilient Systems of Infrastructure
Building an infrastructure that is resilient in the face of disaster is as much a problem of information as it is of materials. When Hurricane Katrina flooded nearly all of New Orleans in 2005, it was able to recover largely because of a robust system of public knowledge (cadaster maps, identity documents, urban plans) that allowed the city, its financial institutions and utility companies to properly assess the damage and rebuild successfully.
Luis Trevino and Klaus Deininger, in a 2016 piece for the World Bank blog, stressed the importance of this “knowledge infrastructure” for the developing world, where official records often only represent a small minority of property owners, and many buildings are informally constructed. They put it in no uncertain terms: “Improving the management of public assets could yield returns greater than the world’s combined investment in housing, transport, power, water, and communications.”
Disaster education provided to children in the Philippines helped save lives during the flooding that devastated Liloan and San Francisco villages in 2006. In 2007, 7-year-old Bangladeshi student Lamia Aktar, after being educated in disaster preparedness, alerted her neighbors about approaching Cyclone Sidr, advising them to seek shelter and store food, saving many of their lives as well as her family’s.
Education is an essential, life-saving resource for any developing nation, and Latin America and the Caribbean need it desperately during hurricane season. Thankfully, USAID currently operates the Youth Emergency Action Committees program in these regions, starting in Jamaica and eventually expanding to The Dominican Republic, Grenada and Santa Lucia. It provides young people with the skills they need to guide themselves and their communities through hurricane season, giving classes on emergency shelter building, first aid and mapping evacuation routes.
None of these strategies alone is a panacea for hurricane season, but, in combination, they might be able to break the cycle of destruction and underdevelopment that it fuels, enabling these regions to thrive and grow instead of just recover.
– John Merino