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Opinion: 5 ways the Caribbean can lead in disaster preparedness

If the names Harvey, Irma, and Maria — in that order — don't elicit some bad memories for you, it's likely you were far away from the Americas in the Summer of 2017.

For those living in the Caribbean, Central America, and the United States, the trio of major hurricanes began as temperamental neighbors you wished would just move away, but ended up staying much longer, and causing more damage than anyone would have expected. Country recovery estimates that the aftermath of these super storms range in excess of $190 billion, and will likely take years.

Following the brutal storms, the Caribbean Community worked to mobilize international support for its hurricane-ravaged member countries through the CARICOM-United Nations High-Level Pledging Conference: “Building a more Climate Resilient Community.” The aim was to seek technical assistance and swap debt for investment in climate adaptation strategies. Many people outside the conference were surprised to learn that in addition to the U.S. National Hurricane Center, the Caribbean also has its own hurricane tracking and disaster management resource.

The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, based in Barbados, is responsible for mitigating the impact of natural and man-made disasters in the region. It mobilizes, coordinates, and informs disaster relief through heads of government, national disaster coordinators, and specialized representatives of disaster relief agencies. Its staff does a fine job and CDEMA carries out its work through 18 member governments, all of which are small island states in the Caribbean, except for Belize, Guyana, and Suriname.

But this begs the question: How can members who are themselves vulnerable to disaster also have primary responsibility for relief and emergency response efforts?

When disaster strikes, government agencies are just as affected as ordinary citizens, and consequently, may not be able to quickly engage with citizens or neighboring entities to implement recovery. This is particularly the case with fast-moving, megastorms that may hit multiple countries in succession, and restrict the movement of goods and services by air or sea.

Since experts warn of more frequent and powerful storms in the coming years, it's important to quickly identify lessons learned from recent disasters, and implement improvements that not only save lives, but ensure better poststorm access to clean water, food, medicines, and also electricity, transport, and safe infrastructure.

The Caribbean is in a unique position to lead the way because of its long history of overcoming such disasters, and its resilient people. But the region cannot do it alone.

The past decade has seen increasing storms affecting places such as The Bahamas, Cuba, and Haiti, and often moving on to the U.S., with high casualties along the way. Poststorm recoveries take time and are expensive. Harnessing experience toward improved disaster recovery is key. The practices below would move the Caribbean in the right direction.

Engage with other regions

Over the course of history, governments all over the world have experienced their own disasters. How they've dealt with them has led to accolades or criticism.

Although the U.S. is the Caribbean's closest neighbor with the resources to manage large-scale disasters, it is not the only country with those capabilities. Countries inside and outside the Caribbean can be relied on in a crisis too — as long as relationships have been established in advance.

Places such as Chile, Italy, Japan, Indonesia, and Turkey, have long and significant histories of managing natural disasters — ranging from catastrophic earthquakes to tsunamis — and getting back on their “feet" quickly. Canada also has strong ties to the region.

Nearby Caribbean governments unaffected by a disaster could also be counted on to rapidly deploy teams: To provide search and rescue, pop-up medical units, emergency food, and water air drops, among other considerations, through CDEMA, to save the lives of those most severely affected.

When small island states step in with financial and technical assistance, their efforts should be strongly applauded and publicized through the same public relations campaigns that larger countries use to demonstrate their goodwill to the world.

Build partnerships with the private sector

It is incomprehensible that in modern times, ensuring basic aid reaches those most affected by disasters can take a week or more.

Disaster planning cannot be composed only of generic strategic plans. Instead, governments must include concrete arrangements with private sector firms in traditionally unaffected neighboring countries, to participate in the timely supply of basic necessities for survivors. If Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago are not victim of hurricanes, their countries could be among the first to supply assistance to hurricane-prone neighbor countries, and vice versa.

Private sector insurers are also becoming key players in private-public ventures for successful recovery efforts. Lack of capital can no longer be the only limitation, as tapping risk insurance funds for recovery is widely advocated, even by the World Bank.

The Asia-Pacific region is leading the way in experimental arrangements with private insurers for disaster recovery, and the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency is rethinking how to better engage the private sector in post-disaster recovery, with an entire department dedicated to private sector outreach.

Multinational and national companies with strong Caribbean operations can bring particularly valuable expertise. Companies with sophisticated supply chains such as Caribbean Airlines and Liat Airlines, based in Trinidad and Tobago and Antigua respectively, Grace Kennedy in Jamaica, and Digicel in Bermuda, could be engaged in public-private partnerships with local governments, through framework contracts specifically set up for emergencies.

The delivery logistics could be negotiated with the airlines, cruise ship companies, and well-known tour boat operators. Authorities in the Virgin Islands and Saint Martin successfully negotiated posthurricane relief efforts with a number of cruise ship companies, including Royal Caribbean, Carnival Corp, and Norwegian Cruise Line, to assist in delivery and rescue missions, setting a precedent for similar arrangements in the future.

Strengthen civil defense plans

Governments can no longer work in silos to effectively manage disasters. It is indisputable that private sector, nongovernmental organizations, and disaster relief agencies play a vital role in the aftermath of emergencies.

But so do private citizens. Caribbean people are world renowned for their hospitality, warmth, resilience, and innovation. People showing compassion and sharing whatever they have in times of need are deserving of universal praise because of their improvisation and agility in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.

Yet, to fully realize the potential of "people power," residents of disaster prone areas need to have training for emergencies. Government civil defense plans exist all over the Caribbean, but must be enforced and implemented with neighborhood groups: To include emergency warning systems that capture radio and cell phone signals to broadcast information; building and maintenance standards for critical infrastructure tested to withstand disasters; and yearly disaster drills, accompanied by instructions on how to safely store basic food and water — perhaps in emergency survival kits for the most needy — are all vital for any meaningful change in disaster preparedness to occur.

Reconsider how the military intervenes

Many countries have a history of turning to the military to distribute goods or provide medical care in crisis situations. Although all efforts toward disaster relief and recovery are commendable, using military personnel for humanitarian interventions should have a limited scope.

The military is ill-equipped to engage with civilians in humanitarian crises, and survivors dealing with shock and fear after a catastrophic event are further traumatized by rigid interactions with armed, and often foreign, military personnel.

Past failures in military humanitarian missions have led the U.N. to draft guidelines, and suggest that postdisaster military missions are most successful when limited to preserving life and securing access for the delivery and distribution of goods and services.

Invest in renewable energy

Solar panels generate clean energy at the place of capture that can sustain entire communities when a country's power grid goes awry or stops functioning altogether. Many pockets of renewable energy already exist all over the region, but there is no sustained government effort to expand its use or budget maintenance for the physical infrastructure supporting renewable energy investments already made.

So why is all that Caribbean sunshine going to waste? Well, first, utility and tax policies must support "going off the grid," at least partly, by creating incentives that make capturing solar energy cost effective and simple to implement. Second, renewable solar energy systems must be designed based on accurate measures of energy use, so that supply and demand can be properly estimated. Third, people need to be educated on both the benefits and limitations of using renewables.

Expanding the use of renewable energy is an area where regional and international organizations must, in the near future, find common ground with Caribbean leaders. Multilateral development banks such as the Caribbean Development Bank and Inter-American Development Bank can lend technical assistance and financing to countries that are serious about transitioning to the greater use of renewables. Grant financing could identify baselines of electrical use, support determining which system is right for which country, and lend professional support.

Sun is a variable resource, so nations that already know where they want to go and just need help getting there, could seek loan financing for equipment; hire experts for advice; and seek to develop the local capacity of suppliers for the coming years.

If recent natural disasters in the Caribbean region have revealed any lesson, it is that partnerships — with citizens, other governments, private sector, and NGOs — undeniably ensure better logistics for resource allocation and support more agile recovery efforts.

Now that the hurricane season is over, and a new one looms, the Caribbean has an opportunity to learn from the past and get a head start on preparations for the megastorms of the future. It must make every effort to tap underutilized resources and limit the damage from disasters sure to come.

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