The 41st annual Conference on the Caribbean and Central America wrapped up here Friday with the issue of disaster resilience planning dominating the discussions, against the backdrop of Hurricanes Irma and Maria which struck the Caribbean region within weeks of each other in September, resulting in the almost total devastation of several islands.
The need for resilience planning to become a major input into the region’s national development strategy was first advocated at the conference by former Jamaican ambassador Dr Richard Bernal, who pointed out that Caribbean societies are concentrated along the coastal areas for “there is where our populations, our productive activity and our ports and airports are located in most of our countries. We live on the beach.”
General Manager of FEDEX Latin America and the Caribbean, Francisco Santeiro agreed with Bernal and pointed out “that is the reason why FEDEX has been funding the Ports Resiliency Program (PReP) which is executed by the Americas Relief Team (ART), a division of Outreach Aid to the Americas (OAA). He said that successful PReP worships have been held in the Caribbean and Central America including Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and just recently St Vincent and the Grenadines and that he would continue to ensure future funding of the program.
“We have got to factor into our economic plans the impact of climate change and therefore include resilience planning. We cannot continue to focus merely on disaster preparation and relief. Climate change has brought on a new period of uncertainty with not only an increasing number of hurricanes but increasing intensity which may call for a category six status,” Bernal told a roundtable on the Caribbean Business Agenda held last Thursday morning, at which he was the keynote speaker.
He said that each hurricane sets back the economy of each island it impacts by at least three years of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which Fernando Rivera, General Manager of the Caribbean Shipping Association called “very conservative, suggesting that “it is more like 5 to 10 years of GDP and in the current case of Puerto Rico perhaps as much as 15 years of GDP.”
Bernal, who is currently Pro Vice Chancellor for Global Affairs at the University of the West Indies (UWI) said that the frequent payments for damage resulting from hurricanes was also impacting insurance rates, a point which was referred to at another session of the conference by the British Consul General in Miami, David Prodger, who noted that current insurance rates in the region “are too high for the poor who can’t afford it, the rich don’t need it and so it is the middle class, small and medium sized business owners and professionals who are negatively impacted.”
The Consul General said that Britain played a significant role in the immediate rescue and relief efforts following recent hurricanes in the Caribbean since it has a ship stationed in the region during the hurricane season. He disclosed that Britain had delivered tons of supplies to its overseas territories and other countries in the region so far and is now focusing on assisting resilient rebuilding efforts. Prodger also announced that Britain has allocated $20 million for the construction of resilient roads on the island of Barbuda which with Antigua forms the twin island nation of Antigua and Barbuda.
Adam Golstein, President and Chief Operating Officer of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd, the keynote speaker on Friday at a session entitled Resilience, Rebuilding and Economic Recovery pointed to the need to ensure that the rest of the world is not given the impression that the Caribbean is wiped out of business. He said he was advancing that advice because of concerns raised in certain quarters, including the media, that the cruise line industry was being callous and uncaring by rushing to get back into countries devastated by hurricanes. In justifying the move to begin serving affected countries as quickly as possible Goldstein said his company faced the same criticism following the Haiti earthquake. These criticisms he said were debunked by a single ordinary worker who told a visiting media team, “if the ships don’t come we wouldn’t eat.”
Goldstein said in one of the affected islands Royal Caribbean recognized that the local authorities would have been unable to clean up the beaches in a timely fashion and his company undertook to do so in an effort to ensure that those who benefit from employment and other income from the cruise line business would not be affected for a prolonged period of time. “So pushing hard to come back is not a bad thing. It is economically critical to resume service,” he argued.
Noting that one of the important considerations in dealing effectively with a crisis is “understanding there is a crisis,” Goldstein said that not since nine eleven did his company’s Incidence Response Center have to engage in such intense response to a crisis which he said positioned Royal Caribbean Ships in the region to help evacuate people and pets. He said Royal Caribbean ships evacuated people from affected countries free of cost. “And you won’t imagine the number of pets…cats and dogs…I don’t think there were any horses…but many, many pets,” he said.
Goldstein praised the governments and people of the affected countries for their cooperation in handling the crisis and for the appreciation displayed for the efforts of his company to assist. Caribbean Central America Action (CCAA) Executive Director Sally Yearwood who chaired the Friday session said that “incredible strides have been made by the region in terms of preparedness and management but more time is needed to assess the scope of economic recovery and resilience. Some of the considerations that have to be taken account of include understanding the new workforce when significant numbers of business owners and employees have left the community temporarily or permanently and an analysis of how countries provide a safety net for uninsured and underinsured citizens and businesses without distorting insurance markets.”