In the eye of the Caribbean storm: one year on from Irma and Maria
In September 2017, Primrose Thomas was at her home on Barbuda, when disaster struck: two Category 5 hurricanes, Irma and Maria, swept over the islands of the eastern Caribbean, wreaking chaos and destruction.
“The first time I came back, I didn’t know where to go. I couldn’t recognize anywhere. I had to ask for directions to my own house.”
Thousands of people in the region found themselves in the same situation as Primrose, and the UN played a major role in helping affected communities get back on their feet.
Click here for more first-hand accounts of the hurricane. UNDP November 2017
In this two-part report – one year on from the hurricanes – we look at the ways in which the Organisation provides aid to those in need and, in a world increasingly affected by the effects of climate change, is finding ways to make the region better able to withstand such events in the years to come.
Part 1: “A paradise turned into Hell”
This is how the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, described Barbuda in the aftermath of the storms: “I have never seen anywhere else in the world a forest completely decimated without one single leaf on any tree…In every community, most of the buildings are destroyed or heavily damaged.”
Irma and Maria were “Category 5” hurricanes, described by the US Government’s National Hurricane Center Website, as winds reaching 157 miles per hour or higher, during which “catastrophic damage will occur”. Irma reached record-breaking sustained speeds of over 183 mph, longer than any other Atlantic hurricane on record.
The most severely affected nations were the two-island State of Antigua and Barbuda, and Dominica; but many other Caribbean islands suffered damage, including Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, The Bahamas, and Turks and Caicos Islands.
Haiti and St. Kitts and Nevis; St. Maarten as well as Cuba; the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, were also impacted.
On 6 September 2017, Antigua and Barbuda was battered by Irma, the first of the two mammoth Atlantic hurricanes tearing westward along Hurricane Alley, the name for the body of warm water that stretches from the west coast of northern Africa to the east coast of Central America and the Gulf Coast of the United States.
For the first time in its history, the entire population of Barbuda, some 1,600 people, was evacuated to the larger island of Antigua. Ninety per cent of homes and buildings in Barbuda were affected, 40 per cent of the roads were damaged, and the entire energy distribution network was destroyed.
Dominica also saw 90 per cent of buildings destroyed by the storms, affecting over 70,000 people.
In the aftermath of Irma and Maria, a UN-wide Crisis Management Unit sent waste management and debris removal experts into the affected areas, opening up roads, collecting garbage, and restoring the water and power networks. Emergency work programmes created temporary jobs and training for affected women and men, quickly injecting cash into communities.
Small businesses were given grants to help them to recover: On the Turks and Caicos Islands, the large majority of MSMEs (Medium, Small and Micro Enterprises) were severely impacted by the hurricanes, and the UN supported a wide range of businesses, from pest controllers and farmers, to taxi drivers and people renting out holiday homes.
Like 70 per cent of the inhabitants of South Caicos, Henry Handfield relies on fishing for a living. One of the 40 MSME owners selected for a hurricane relief grant, he says that the $550 received made an impact: “(My boat) was flipped upside down and one portion of it was broken off. The top of the engine was smashed up, the roof was destroyed…all I had was the hull of this boat.” Handfield recalls. “The help I got from UNDP (the UN Development Programme) was very helpful. I was able to take that and put with some other monies to remodel this boat.”
Financial support also came in the form of an innovative direct cash transfer scheme, which puts money directly in the hands of affected families. Run by the Government of Dominica, the programme is supported by UNICEF and the World Food Programme and funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. Between December and February 2017, it provided 8,000 of the most vulnerable families affected by Maria with monthly payments ranging between $90 and $239, depending on the number of children in the household.
Yvonne Hill Williams lives in Roseau, Dominica. A shopkeeper and foster carer who also looks after her five grandchildren, Yvonne lost all of her merchandise when the nearby river overflowed during Hurricane Maria. She found that the cash initiative came in handy during a difficult time: “We bought clothes, shoes, and a little shopping and groceries. You feel that you can buy certain things in town. It’s a good feeling…I appreciate it very much.”
In Dominica, the priority for women farmers was to be able to get back on their feet as soon as possible. UN Women facilitated this by providing seeds, labour and equipment to bring their farms back into production as soon as possible.
Eileen Lloyd, of the Bellevue Chopin Farmers Group in Dominica, is one of the beneficiaries. She described the support provided by UN Women as a blessing: “After Maria, it was very difficult to get seeds, and then we were promised some seeds and tools from UN Women and we appreciate them handing them over to us,” she said.
The organisation also worked closely with the UN Population Fund to provide displaced Barbudan women and girls with sanitary items not easily found in relief packages. They distributed “dignity kits”, containing basic health and hygiene products such as soap and sanitary towels.
One year on, the most vulnerable people affected – those with no income or insurance, single people and those with disabilities – risk getting lost in the system. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), has focused on helping the most at-risk communities.
IOM has helped hundreds in Dominica by reconstructing their homes. Wyzell Philogene, a single mother, spent almost a month sharing a space at a friend’s house, along with around 15 others. Her roof was ripped off, and she lost nearly all her belongings. Wyzelle qualified for IOM humanitarian assistance and, a week later, a brand-new roof was erected at no cost to her. She is now able to focus on making a living, through a landscaping job made available through the National Employment Programme, and she is making sure that she is prepared for the next hurricane season.
Wyzell is not alone in thinking about how to survive in the future: the UN’s longer-term planning and development teams have been working closely with emergency humanitarian workers from the very beginning of the crisis.
In part 2 of this special report, we will look more closely at the efforts underway to make the region more resilient, in the face of climate change and the likelihood of more frequent, and more extreme, natural disasters.
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Runaway climate change still “a real possibility”: UN Secretary-General
The document, published by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate – a project comprising several UN bodies, and other institutions – finds that the benefits of smarter and clearer growth are significantly under-estimated, and that bold climate action could deliver $26 trillion in economic benefits through to 2030.
Other benefits of switching to a clean economy include the creation of over 65 million new low-carbon jobs, and 700,000 fewer air pollution-related deaths.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former Finance Minister of Nigeria and Co-Chair of the Global Commission, said that “policy makers should take their feet off the brakes, send a clear signal that the new growth story is here and that it comes with exciting economic and market opportunities. $26 trillion and a more sustainable planet are on offer if we act decisively now.”
Speaking at the launch, Secretary-General Guterres said that momentum for climate action is growing every day, with over 130 of the world’s most influential companies now committed to using only renewable energy, fossil fuel-dependent countries looking to diversify, and over 250 investors with $28 trillion in managed assets signing on to the Climate Action 100+ initiative.
Shifting to a sustainable growth path has many other benefits. Climate resilient water supply and sanitation could save the lives of more than 360,000 infants every year, restoring degraded lands means better lives for farmers, and clean air has vast benefits for public health.
Mr. Guterres that clean energy systems help developing countries, where over 1 billion people still do not have access to electricity,” adding that “it can help deliver access to energy to the one billion people who currently lack electricity. For example, Bangladesh has installed more than four million solar home systems. This has created more than 115,000 jobs and saved rural households over $400 million dollars in polluting fuels.”
Lord Nicholas Stern, Economics and Government Professor at the London School of Economics, who also Co-Chairs the Global Commission, said “we know we are grossly underestimating the benefits of this new growth story. And further, it becomes ever more clear that the risks of the damage from climate change are immense, and tipping points, irreversibilities, getting ever closer.”
Underlining the risks faced by the world, the UN chief said that climate change is “running faster than we are”, and that women, the poorest and the most vulnerable are hit first and worst by storms, floods, droughts, wildfires and rising seas.
Mr. Guterres reminded those present that the last 19 years included 18 of the warmest on record, that greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere continue to rise, and that there is still a significant gap between national commitments to lower emissions, and actual reductions.
The Secretary-General told those present that climate change will be high on the agenda of the 2018 opening session of the General Assembly, as part of efforts to galvanise action ahead of the milestone 2020 meeting of parties to the 2015 Paris Agreement.
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Act now to save children from rise in climate-driven extreme weather – UNICEF
The devastating floods in southern India, wildfires ravaging the western United States and the record-breaking heatwaves baking countries across much of the northern hemisphere, are putting children in immediate danger while also jeopardizing their future, the agency said in a press release issued on Friday.
“In any crisis, children are among the most vulnerable, and the extreme weather events we are seeing around the world are no exception,” said Ted Chaiban, UNICEF Director of Programmes.
“Over the past few months, we have seen a stark vision of the world we are creating for future generations. As more extreme weather events increase the number of emergencies and humanitarian crises, it is children who will pay the highest price.”
These extreme weather events during June and July, causing injury, death, environmental damage and other losses.
UNICEF stated that although individual weather events cannot specifically be attributed to climate change, their increasing frequency and severity correspond with predictions of how human activities are affecting the global climate.
These conditions have numerous impacts on children. For example, they contribute to the increased spread of “childhood killers” such as malnutrition, malaria and diarrhoea, UNICEF explained.
Heatwaves put children at risk, with infants and younger children more likely to die or suffer from heatstroke, while floods threaten their survival and development through causing injuries or death by drowning, or compromising water supply and damaging sanitation facilities. Meanwhile, poor families are particularly affected by drought, which can lead to crop failure, livestock deaths and loss of income.
“As the world experiences a steady rise in climate-driven extreme weather events, it is children’s lives and futures that will be the most disrupted,” Mr. Chaiban continued. “Therefore, it’s vital that Governments and the international community take concrete steps to safeguard children’s future and their rights. The worst impacts of climate change are not inevitable, but the time for action is now.”
UNICEF has proposed an “agenda for action on climate change.” It calls for strengthening health systems to respond to a changing climate and more extreme weather events.
Other measures include increasing investment in climate resilient agricultural, water and sanitation services; educating children and young people about the issue of climate change, and reflecting their needs in national strategies and action plans.
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