By Patsy Lewis
September 12, 2017

The Caribbean has been hard hit by Hurricane Irma, which caused extensive damage to Barbuda, French St. Martin and Dutch St. Maarten, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, the Turks and Caicos islands, the Bahamas, Cuba and, with less ferocity, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti.

Hurricanes of that magnitude cause incalculable damage to small islands. Extensive damage to housing, as occurred in Barbuda, which lost over 90% of its houses and was forced to move its population to Antigua, is also accompanied by damage to government facilities and police stations, crippling the government’s ability to provide services. As people are unable to access food and water, desperation can result in a breakdown in law and order, which is already happening on some islands. Other social infrastructure such as churches and schools, which are places of shelter and support after a hurricane, are themselves damaged and unable to provide this role. Roads, bridges, airports, and seaports also suffer damage, making it difficult to access those most in need of support.

The widespread damage Irma has caused and the limited ability of governments to respond require an urgent response from the international community. The affected islands are in need of water and food, as well as medical supplies, tarpaulins, plywood, clothing, and cash. They also need skilled volunteers such as doctors, other medical professionals, and engineers, as well as psychologists to help vulnerable sections of the population, including children, cope with the trauma of the past few days.

Regional organizations are doing the best they can to bring much needed assistance, but do not have the means to bring these resources to the most affected islands. The international community can respond by offering the help of aircraft that can carry large volumes of goods and people. They can help clear harbors and make airports functional to facilitate the delivery of much-needed supplies. The devastated islands will also need skilled personnel to relieve overextended medical providers and to restore electricity and water.

These are some of the immediately urgent needs. The extensive damage to these islands’ key economic sector, tourism, as well as other infrastructure such as government buildings, schools, and churches, will require generous financial contributions from the international community. These will have to be constructed along more sustainable guidelines to minimize future hazards.

This requires a massive and expensive rebuilding effort. The full cost of the damage to the region is yet to be calculated, but it’s clear that these small, vulnerable Caribbean islands will be unable to meet these costs without significant help from abroad. This may mean a moratorium on debt repayment. The U.S., given its close proximity and long history of engagement with the region, is well-placed to take the lead. America can use its influence with international financial institutions to ensure that debt repayment does not take priority over reconstruction.

Small islands contribute least to climate change but are expected to feel its disproportionate effects in more frequent storms of heightened intensity, elevated sea levels, and associated damage to their main economic infrastructure. Predictions of a more active 2017 hurricane season suggest that there might be more to come. The Caribbean needs America’s help both now and in the foreseeable future.

Patsy Lewis is director of development studies at Brown University.

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