Following three successive hurricanes in two weeks that wreaked havoc on hundreds of islands in a 1,000-mile archipelago, Caribbean people are starting to search and rescue, assess their losses and count the costs of the worst hurricane season they’ve ever witnessed.
But while the world is expressing sympathy, prospects of help in the speed and amounts required seem quite dim.
The world is rightfully concerned about the damage two earthquakes and a hurricane did to Mexico and the continuing pledges of support from countries near and far. But the Caribbean is warning that if history is anything to go by, the immediate future of hurricane relief support coming its way is dwindling by the day.
Talk Less, Act More
Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit issued a very strong call on the nations of the world to talk less an act more – to put their money where their mouths are, so to speak – and help the Caribbean islands and nations hit by the three hurricanes (Irma, Jose and Maria).
The leader of the small Caribbean island ravaged by Hurricane Maria issued the direct call to the world as he addressed the United Nations General Assembly Saturday, just days after his 305 square-mile island of just over 80,000 inhabitants was pummeled by the Category 5 hurricane.
Dominica faced the three raging systems and the Nature Isle of 365 rivers was ravaged, in some cases and places beyond repair, with at least 15 people confirmed dead and 95 percent of roofs lost in several areas.
The prime minister, whose official residence was among the first to lose its roof, openly shed tears two days after the disaster struck, while being interviewed by the press in neighboring Antigua and Barbuda.
In New York for the U.N. Summit this past week, he’d left behind a country in ruins and tens of thousands – nearly everyone in some areas – homeless.
Water and food were getting scarce and those able were simply trying to get out, while others worried about relatives unseen an unheard.
Early assessments were that 98 percent of the island’s infrastructure was destroyed, there’s no fresh water or electricity and most if not all roads are blocked.
There are steady reports of looting, but no violence, with foreign troops flown to the island to ensure some measure of security.
British, French and Dutch troops have combined with others from the Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago Defense Forces, along with detachments from the Regional Security Service, RSS, to address the looting and keep a lid on violence.
It had only been two years since Tropical Storm Erika devastated Dominica in 2015, leaving the island’s government appealing to the world for emergency aid and rehabilitation was still under way when Maria hit.
A New Paradigm
Noting the increasingly changing weather patterns and the equally increasing damage and destruction left in their path in this part of the world, the Dominica leader told his U.N. and world audience that “To deny Climate Change is to procrastinate while the earth sinks.”
But, he added, “While the big countries talk, the small islands suffer.”
“We are shouldering the consequences of the actions of others,” he pointed out, adding, “We did not start the war on Nature. The war has come to us.”
Skerrit noted that “The Caribbean does not produce greenhouse gases or contribute to global warming, but we are the victims on the front line.”
“72,000 Dominicans lie on the front line in a war they did not choose, with extensive casualties in a war they did not start,” he said.
The Dominica leader then appealed to the world to turn a new page. “We need all of humanity to come together to save our planet,” he said, adding that “A new paradigm of green economic development is needed!”
A similar appeal was also made at the U.N. by St. Kitts and Nevis Prime Minister Timothy Harris – and before him, by Antigua and Barbuda’s Prime Minister Gaston Browne, as well as Saint Lucia’s Prime Minister Allen Chastanet.
But one common thread throughout all the addresses by the Caribbean leaders was their message to "climate deniers" that Climate Change is real.
Another was that even though their islands are devastated, the governments stand in solidarity with each other: Dominica had earlier pledged assistance to St. Kitts for use on Nevis, which Harris urged Skerrit to keep, in light of Maria’s subsequent damage to his island.
Harris told the U.N. his government had also offered assistance – no matter how small – to Antigua and Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla and St Martin.
Likewise, Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, Barbados and Saint Lucia are among other islands that have also been assisting Dominica.
Saint Lucia has for several days been an operational base for support from Venezuela, which dispatched a cargo plane, a helicopter and scores of volunteers with relief materials for onward transmission to Dominica. The helicopter is also being used to extract stranded foreign families.
Dominicans are also fleeing the island to as near as Saint Lucia and all the way to Trinidad & Tobago. Saint Kitts and Nevis is also offering sanctuary and medical attention to needy Dominicans arriving on its shores. British support is being coordinated out of Barbados, where a navy ship, planes and helicopters, trucks and soldiers are based.
There are disturbing reports of the situation starting to deteriorate in the islands hit, with claims of shortages of food and water supplies either low or running-out and mounting fears that diseases can start to set in.
The situation is said to be absolutely critical on St. Martin, a small island shared between France and The Netherlands, from where private reports from residents are of looting and gun shots, claims of dead bodies still being pulled out of rubble and in some cases found floating near the sea shores.
Islanders (on both French and Dutch sides) are complaining that official island administrators have fled to Europe, many also claiming separatism in selection of persons being helped by official rescue teams.
Some openly say the U.S., U.K., France and The Netherlands are only interested in giving safe passage to their nationals on the island, while leaving the natives to fend for themselves.
Counting the Costs
The islands hit by the three hurricanes are all counting their losses, with St. Kitts alone assessing damage already at EC$88.5 million (US$1.00 = EC $2.71), while damage to Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, St. Martin and St. Bartholomew is expected to be very much higher.
Altogether, the final figure won’t be known for weeks and is likely to increase over time.
But given the small size of the islands and their populations, no one expects it will reach anywhere near the over US$100 billion estimated for Texas after Hurricane Harvey – or the US$700 billion budgeted for US defense expenditure over the next year.
While the Caribbean governments are counting the costs, the international community has not been as responsive to their pleas for help as they would have liked.
The few the non-Caribbean leaders who spoke at the U.N. General Assembly offered words of comfort, but hardly any help. India called on the nations of the world to assist the member-states battered by the hurricanes, but few responded.
With hurricanes an annual feature in the Caribbean, year after year, regional states ravaged by them hold their hands and hats out, necessarily begging for urgent international aid that’s usually quickly promised, but hardly ever comes with the sped or in the volumes needed.
Traditional donor countries – especially the former colonial "mother countries" like the U.K. and France – normally do assist, but less so of late as the hurricanes increase in frequency and levels of damage worsen progressively.
But while some of the traditional donors are complaining of everything from “donor fatigue” to dwindling reserves, most of the better-off nations with the capacity to easily help more directly an meaningfully, hardly seem to care enough about small island states to even offer to help.
‘Our Caribbean responsibility'
Year after year, Caribbean and other small island states and developing countries around the world hear promises an pledges that sound good, but either take (almost) forever to deliver, or never materialize in the proportions promised or needed.
Hence the call by the Dominica Prime Minister for the world’s big nations to understand that while they speak without backing their words with dollars and actions, it is the people in the little islands of the world that continue to suffer.
But one leader, who has been there and had to face several disasters in a neighboring island that has also been through it all, does not hold out much hope for world support for the Caribbean.
Former Saint Lucia Prime Minister Dr. Kenny D. Anthony, in a post Sunday on his Facebook page said, “The recovery in all of these islands will be painful and slow and it will test our resolve, stamina, and our humanity.”
Dr. Anthony said “Some aid will flow to our region, but in the final analysis, we will be left on our own.”
He acknowledged that “Venezuela has already acknowledged its friendship with its big Bolivarian heart, but given its weakened economy its capacity to assist in the recovery efforts will be limited.”
“Though battered by Irma, the Cuba I know will still reach out,” he added.
However, he added, “We need to understand that Dominica -- and indeed all the islands that are a part of our Caribbean family -- is our responsibility.”
He said while the U.S. will take care of its territories and Europe will give the usual bits of help, the European states’ focus will most likely be mainly on their regional colonial dependencies.
In this scenario, he says, the Caribbean will be left to have to see after itself.
According to the ex-PM, “The world has become a very unfriendly place these days.”
As a result, he adds, “We need reassure our Caribbean family that they are not alone.”