Editorial

It's not rocket science; disaster planning is a must

Sunday, September 17, 2017

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Given the vulnerability of the Caribbean to natural disasters it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that disaster planning must become front and centre in our existence.

Some 238 hurricanes have hit the region between 1950 and 2014. The damage from these disasters is made more acute by the nature and topography of our small islands, most of which are either below sea level or only a few feet above sea level.

Most of the populations of these islands are concentrated on a narrow, low coastal strip, technically on the beach. The most important economic activities, infrastructure and buildings are also on the coastal strip —Barbados being a prominent example.

Because of the small size of most Caribbean states, when a hurricane hits it often devastates the entire country, in contrast to large countries where there is partial damage, so the rest of the country can render assistance. Compare St Martin/St Marteen with the United States, both having been hit by Hurricane Irma this month.

The total damage experienced in the Caribbean over the past 65 years since 1950 is estimated at US$52 billion (in constant 2010 US$). But it is widely believed that this figure is a gross underestimate because the available data is based on only 148 disasters. In addition, there is no way to put a value on the considerable loss of life.

The magnitude of the loss is more graphic when measured as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Some of the largest disasters in each island, particularly for the smaller islands, caused damage well above 100 per cent of GDP, with Montserrat leading the pack with 434 per cent of GDP after Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Hurricane Gilbert in Jamaica in 1988 caused damage equivalent to 50 per cent of GDP.

Reconstruction is usually not well organised because those most affected are the poor who have no insurance and little, if any savings. The cost of reconstruction then falls on cash-starved governments, private charities, international humanitarian organisations, the Diaspora and the generosity of countries.

In our view, the frequency of hurricanes and earthquakes in our region suggests that insurance for both private and government entities is imperative, and that more attention needs to be devoted to government-sponsored natural disaster insurance pools for small island developing states. For example, the World Bank's Pacific Catastrophe Risk Assessment and Financing Initiative (PCRFI).

Effort must be made to raise more funds internationally to strengthen the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) and multilateral development banks must make disaster recovery an integral part of their funding of the Caribbean.

Moreover, countries have a duty to continually revise the mandatory standards of their building codes. The current one in Jamaica does not contemplate Category 5 hurricanes, which are forecast to become more frequent.

Finally, we believe that the international community, led by the United Nations, should increase research to improve weather forecasting so as to minimise loss of lives and damage to property.

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