Planning for extreme weather - rather than reacting after a disaster - is key to staying ahead, experts say
KINGSTOWN, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Last Christmas Eve, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines was pounded by 12 inches of rain in three hours, a deluge that caused rivers to burst their banks, while battering the island’s infrastructure and claiming a dozen lives.
The storm cost the Caribbean archipelago nation a hefty 17 percent of its annual GDP. Now, as residents rebuild, they say fears of massive flooding and landslides are never far from their minds, particularly with the annual hurricane season starting in less than two weeks.
But for residents of the South Leeward island town of Vermont, one of the areas hardest hit by the December storm, help in avoiding similar damage is on the way. It comes in the form of a $40.6 million climate and disaster risk reduction project, backed by the World Bank’s International Development Association and by the Pilot Program for Climate Resilience of the Climate Investment Funds.
The project, dubbed the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Regional Disaster Vulnerability Reduction Project focuses on reducing damage from the increasing severity and frequency of storms hitting the islands, backers say. It aims to boost investment in disaster prevention and adaptation to climate impacts, establish a regional system to evaluate risks, improve response to natural disasters and help the nation build technical and institutional capacity to deal with climate-related issues.
Those affected by last year’s disaster say help can’t come soon enough.
Corinthian Haddaway, a 46-year-old tailor from lower Vermont, lost all his belongings to the Christmas Eve flood. Haddaway’s house sits perched precariously on the Vermont River bank, and he is hoping that efforts to stabilise the nearby slopes and protect the river embankment, part of the upcoming project, will prevent such huge losses in the future.
“I just lived through the worst disaster I have ever seen. I do not sleep here any more. I have nightmares and I am afraid of flash flooding,” he said.
These days, “I know with Mother Nature and the hurricane season on the way, you can not stop rain or inclement weather, but if we can help reduce the impact of weather, like what we saw on Christmas Eve, this will help all of us who call this place home,” he said.
Just a few miles north, at upper Vermont, Renard Moses walks across the bridge that he built after the Christmas Eve rains washed away the one constructed by the government. Moses employs 10 young men at his scrap metal and construction equipment rental company.
Like Haddaway, he describes last December’s rains and flooding as the worst he’d ever seen. The 43-year-old, who has lived in upper Vemont since 1980, remembers waving to his neighbour across the river when the rain started. Hours later that neighbor’s body would be found a few miles away, washed away by raging flood waters.
Moses said his losses to the storm were estimated at $250,000 but he was simply thankful to be alive. He built the new bridge to ensure school children would no longer have to get across the river by walking along utility poles laid down as a makeshift bridge.
But he worries that with the official June 1st start of the annual hurricane season nearly here, the river could once again burst its banks and cause untold damage. Improving the embankments that protect homes and businesses from the river is crucial to avoiding more losses, he says.
“I believe a project like this could go a long way in putting the community at ease. After what I saw on Christmas Eve 2013, I will never again underestimate the power of nature,” he said. “I was forced to wade through neck-high water to save my disabled son and wife. The river became a monster and was everywhere. When the bridge collapsed, we were stranded across the river for three days before someone put utility poles for us to cross.”
He said he understands the new river embankment protection measures may not be in place in time for this year’s hurricane season, but nonetheless, “I hope it can be done quickly,” he said.
Janelle Quow, an engineer with the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning's Central Planning Division, said the river protection work, which will start later this year, will focus in a range of vulnerable areas, beyond just those hit by last year’s storm.
“The river protection works will not be solely concentrated in areas that were affected by the Christmas Eve rains. For example, works will be undertaken near the Warrow Warrow River. Residents there are in a very vulnerable situation and that type of work will go a long way in ensuring they are protected during heavy rainfall,” she said.
A REGIONAL APPROACH
Regional collaboration will be key to shoring up the defenses of Caribbean countries to the effects of climate change, St. Vincent and the Grenadines engineers say, as worsening storms are hitting across the region.
In 2010, Hurricane Tomas struck St. Lucia and dumped 10 inches of rain in six hours, resulting in losses of 43 percent of GDP. Earlier, in 2004, Grenada lost a crippling 200 percent of GDP when Hurricane Ivan hit, flattening the island’s structures.
Many of the Caribbean’s small islands now suffer big losses nearly every hurricane season, and a more proactive approach to the disasters is needed, rather than simply reacting afterward, said Cecil Harris, a senior engineer with the World Bank’s regional program to reduce disaster vulnerability.
In particular, the islands need to share information on effective resilience measures against climate-related disasters such as hurricanes, landslides, flooding and drought, he said.
“When disasters hit, apart from lives lost, the infrastructure is what really suffers,” he said. Rather than fixing what’s been damaged, what’s key is to “build better and stronger.”
The project he works on, Harris said, “ensures that sister islands have shared access to climate resilience information and data,” which cuts down on duplication and waste.
“You will find that many islands plan to undertake projects that others have already completed and there are reports which could be shared. Through this program, the governments can cut down on the scope of projects. The money being spent on consultancies could be drastically reduced, along with duplicity, which is a perennial problem,” he said.
MAPPING DISASTER RISK
For experts on the St. Vincent and the Grenadines project to reduce disaster risk, geospatial mapping is an integral part of building resilience. The technology uses data to plot trends and risk areas, helping predict in which areas natural disasters linked to climate change are likely to be most devastating and cost the most lives.
The problem is that without good data it’s hard to make good predictions, and meteorological equipment has been lacking in many small Caribbean islands. Buying that equipment is now a priority for many island officials, Harris said.
“It is ironic that we used to have more data before, in the days of large estates on the islands. The farmers would keep rainfall data. But with the breakup and sell out of these estates, we find that those records are no longer kept,” he said.
What data is available “is scattered,” he said. “For example, some databases are controlled by the Ministries of Agriculture and some by the airports. Part of this project involves collating all information relating to disaster vulnerability reduction into a database that anyone can access, not just locally, but regionally,” he said.
For Quow, mapping is critical to the overall national disaster risk mitigation efforts of the government of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and other regional governments.
“One of the first activities that we completed under this project was a database that catalogues all the public infrastructure, buildings, roads, bridges and ports, to be able to conduct an assessment of their current state and vulnerability. This information is captured in a database which ministries can use to schedule maintenance and ensure accurate, up-to-date information on key areas of vulnerability,” she said.
Locals like Haddaway say better data and mapping could help them be better prepared for future extreme weather. If “all the information needed (is) available, it could help us to prepare ourselves, organise ourselves in such a way that if we encounter a situation as terrible as the Christmas Eve weather event, the damage to our homes, jobs and community could be reduced,” he said.
Experts at the Central Planning Division of the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning in St. Vincent and the Grenadines say the five-year risk reduction project, originally scheduled to finish at the end of 2016, has now been extended to 2018.
That is because the planning division has fallen behind on the project timelines, said Quow, who also has responsibility for procurement and contract management. But she said she is hopeful that the pace of work will soon pick up, with some early studies now out of the way, and that the project will finish by 2018.
Sekai Chiaka Bowman, a procurement officer at the Central Planning Division, said on-the-ground work, such as slope stabilization and river embankment work, should be underway toward the end of 2014.
Making the Caribbean less vulnerable to climate-related losses and damage is crucial to ensuring island economies move forward, not backward, Harris said.
“The economies of our small states take a step forward, but take two steps back following severe weather events. It is time to move forward, rather than every hurricane season being set back,” he said.
For more pictures from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, see our slideshow: As worsening storms slam the Caribbean, St. Vincent and the Grenadines fights back
Alison Kentish is a journalist based in Dominica. This article is part of a series funded by the Climate Investment Funds.
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