Caribbean: Plan needed to mitigate impact of natural disasters

by Dionne Jackson Miller

Montego Bay (Jamaica), 15 Jan (IPS) -- Increasingly high costs of natural disasters in the Caribbean are forcing regional officials to take a hard look at how the region plans for and responds to these events, especially hurricanes.

With tourism and agriculture being two of the major foreign exchange earners for the Caribbean, natural disasters can mean devastation for local economies.

The Caribbean is the most tourism-dependent region in the world, with the sector raking in gross earnings of $17.9 billion in 1998, providing about 900,000 direct and indirect jobs, and contributing about a quarter of the region’s foreign exchange earnings. The impact or even the threat of hurricanes can therefore have serious consequences for the region’s tourism industry.

The Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) reports that surveys of tour operators indicate there is resistance in the United Kingdom market to visiting the Caribbean during September and October, and that fear of hurricanes is one of the major obstacles to selling the region during the summer months.

When hurricanes have hit, they have had devastating results. In the past 12 years, the Caribbean has seen Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, Hugo in 1989, Luis and Marilyn in 1995, Mitch and Georges in 1998 and Lenny in 1999, all resulting in major losses. Hurricane Gilbert is estimated to have cost Jamaica $4-6 billion, while the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank reports that in 1995, because of Hurricane Luis, Antigua and Barbuda saw losses of 4,000 to 7,000 jobs, an estimated 15-25% of the workforce.

Anguilla too was hit by Hurricane Luis in 1995 and saw real output decline by 4.2 percent. Having recovered from Luis, the island’s economy was growing at 10% per annum by 1999, but Hurricane Lenny hit in November of that year, resulting in an economic slowdown, with growth in the hotel and restaurant sector some 6% below expectations although still up 6.6% over the preceding year.

Agricultural output often suffers. Dominica, for example, saw banana production fall by 22.8% in 1995 because of an almost total destruction of the crop due to tropical storm Iris and Hurricanes Luis and Marilyn.  Economic growth slowed that year to 1.6%, down from 2.2% the previous year.

Officials at a recent regional disaster preparedness seminar here identified several issues as contributing to the region’s heavy losses from natural disasters, including poor planning and inadequate building practices.

“Losses from disasters are exacerbated by human activity, there’s just no question about that,” says environmental consultant Eleanor Jones.  “All these hazards are natural events, they become disasters when we encroach on (their) path, so in the case of the tourism sector, siting and design are extremely critical. Although we talk about standards, we seem to continue to build in vulnerable locations.”

Kent Vital, from the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank, says although their passage through the region is a “statistical certainty”, governments of the Eastern Caribbean have not planned adequately for hurricanes.

He advocates proper insurance for the tourism sector, along with mitigation planning, including the exploration of alternative means of providing electricity. He also suggests that marketing groups of hotels across islands could minimise the impact when any one island is hit by a hurricane.

Vital is also suggesting that adequate crop insurance be put in place, arguing that continued dependence on grant aid for rehabilitation is not a sustainable method of operation, especially in light of increasing competition for international aid.

He says that the Caribbean must prepare for hurricanes and storms in the same way that other areas of the world prepare for winter, and design physical infrastructure accordingly.

“Adequate provisions must be made for the direct and indirect destruction of production by hurricanes and storms, just as food is stored up for the winter months in countries which experience winter.  These provisions may include insurance coverage, and reserves and savings of both the public and private sectors,” he says.

“These provisions should also include adequate and comprehensive planning for recovery. The ultimate critical issue is that within most, if not all, countries within the Caribbean region, hurricanes and storms are seen as crises, despite the fact that we can establish their occurrence within some level of precision that warrants other than crisis management.”

The inevitability of storms and hurricanes has also led Deputy Secretary General of the CTO Karen Ford-Warner to suggest that in light of the staggering losses sustained from hurricanes, the region needs to rethink its approach to beachfront development.

“Despite the attraction and market appeal of beachfront properties, active consideration needs to be given to offering incentives to potential investors to build away from our shores to reduce the consequences associated with coastal flooding or future changes associated with a sea-level rise,” she says.

For properties and facilities on the beach, she says, there needs to be an assessment process to determine their vulnerability, as well as adequate mitigation measures.

Disaster officials say, however, that although some hotels are beginning to realise the importance of disaster preparedness, too often, disaster plans are either non-existent or buried deep in a drawer, neither implemented nor updated, while staff training is given short shrift.

Ford-Warner says that while the CTO has had a longstanding relationship with the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency (CDERA), a formal co-operation agreement is now needed covering areas like research and data collection, public awareness, technical assistance and training.

CDERA is reporting some progress, however, saying there has been an improvement in regional disaster planning and awareness, with efforts now being made to develop a strategic framework for comprehensive disaster management.

With the assistance of the United States Army, CDERA has established regional emergency relief warehouses in the islands of Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Antigua and Barbuda, a move which has improved the region’s ability to move critical supplies to affected countries without dependence on the United States.

“We really want to target operational self-sufficiency in the next three years or so dealing with emergency response and relief-type operations, delivering things, transporting people and supplies.

“In the context of training, we think we are 50% along the way with respect to developing the training products and training personnel to deliver these,” says CDERA co-ordinator Jeremy Collymore. CDERA is now looking at damage assessment and shelter management policies.

But critics argue that much of the assistance currently being provided would not be necessary if the Caribbean were to insist on proper adherence to building codes.

“In the Commonwealth Caribbean, there are very few legally enforceable infrastructure and building design standards,” says Barbados-based consultant engineer Tony Gibbs.

He says standards are usually couched in minimum terms, adding that on small islands like those in the Caribbean, adherence to minimum standards alone cannot be acceptable, especially when it relates to critical institutions like hospitals.

“In these small island states where our critical facilities are usually one per island, the logic is that we should have higher standards for our critical facilities than do people living in continental countries.  If a port is knocked out in Dominica, it’s their only port. If a port is knocked out in the east coast of the USA, it’s just a longer train ride for the goods to get to market,” Gibbs says.

The cost of insurance is often cited as another major factor preventing adequate disaster preparedness, but Michael Gayle, General Manager of Jamaica’s Globe Insurance, suggests that one problem lies in under-capitalisation of regional insurance companies, which leads them to rely too heavily on reinsurers.

He says Caribbean companies must be encouraged to build up reserves and establish catastrophe reserve funds, citing Trinidad as an example, where contributions of 20% of net income of property business are allowed. Such funds, he says, reduce dependence on reinsurers, forcing them to become more competitive, and reducing costs.

But through all the debate, Gibbs insists that the region should not accept as a given the heavy losses regularly sustained in the Caribbean.

“I’m not one of those who subscribe to use of the phrase ‘natural disasters’ when it comes to hurricanes and torrential rain,” Gibbs says. “The Caribbean is located in an area of the world exposed to multiple hazards, and if sustainable development is to be achieved, there is no other option than to counteract these natural hazards by designing and constructing resistant facilities. This is feasible.”