Caribbean islands struck by last year’s hurricanes Irma and Maria are getting some much needed help with their recovery — from rebuilt schools and improved healthcare to mental health access and solar lights.
The commitments — coming less than 60 days before the June 1 start of hurricane season — were announced Tuesday by former President Bill Clinton at the University of Miami as part of the newly launched Clinton Global Initiative Action Network on Post-Disaster Recovery.
Modeled after the Clinton Foundation’s 2010 Haiti earthquake response, the initiative is aimed at helping the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands along with Dominica and other Caribbean territories obtain long-term investments to help with their recovery.
“It is unthinkable that we will let climate change destroy the island-nations of the world, and the economic and cultural contributions they make,” Clinton said. “We’ve got a chance to do something that makes a difference. We ought to take it.”
Clinton was joined by more than 350 representatives of businesses, non-governmental organizations and governments along with Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit; USVI Gov. Kenneth Mapp; Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s delegate to Congress; and Caribbean Community Secretary-General Irwin LaRocque. Several Puerto Rico mayors, including San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, also attended.
“We have a long way to go because we are going to build back,” said Skerrit, noting that while 5,000 new homes were needed in his tiny island, tourism and agriculture exports were back up. “We still need a lot of resources.”
Cruz, an outspoken critic of the Trump administration’s response after Maria decimated the territory and left the entire island without power, said recovery remains challenging. Hundreds of people remain unaccounted for, and there has been a 55 percent increase in suicides, she said.
“Right now we have 200,000 people in Puerto Rico who still don’t have electricity and it’s 59 days before the next hurricane season,” Cruz said. “If you don’t have electricity, you are truly stripped from the power to transform your life.”
Cruz said that one of the biggest needs of Puerto Rico is a diversified electricity grid offering not just fossil fuel, but wind and solar, and that the island needed micro-grids throughout to avoid a repeat of the blackout.
“We need to continue to put permanent solutions to recurring problems,” she said. “Climate change is real and we are an island surrounded by water, lots and lots of water, and this will continue to happen.”
González-Colón echoed Cruz’s call for a new grid. “We’re just using 2 percent of renewables on the island. That means we’re burning oil as we speak. It’s not cost effective. Our economy is hurting badly because of that.”
In all, she said, Puerto Rico’s governor has requested $90 billion to rebuild and replace infrastructure — like the 36 bridges that were washed away. So far, it has received $20 billion.
“Of course we haven’t received the same amount of money as Florida or Texas,” González-Colón said. “Having said this, this is the biggest amount of funds we’ve ever received from Congress.”
Mapp said he expects to receive about $7 billion from Congress. He will be able to rebuild and modernize schools and modernize the power supply by placing some lines underground.
“The money for the infrastructure is significant,” Mapp said.
With so many islands devastated, rebuilding is going to be a long-term effort, and the need for resiliency is essential.
LaRocque said Caricom recently modeled the future effects of climate change and “the predictions are not good.”
“The modeling says we’re going to have more frequent storms, more intense storms and in the off season, we’re going to get drought. We have to prepare for a range of disasters,” he said.
Prior to Tuesday’s launch, Clinton visited Dominica, Puerto Rico and the USVI. He said he “was really struck by the determination of the positive attitude so many people had in the wake of horrible circumstances.”
“The people in all of these islands have shown remarkable resilience, and a determination to do long-term work that will build back better, ” he said.
While millions of dollars were committed ahead of the gathering, including $600 million to help Dominica become the first climate-resilient nation, the goal is to secure additional funding and follow-through on commitments.
As Clinton announced commitments through the day, he also lobbied individuals in the room to donate, using his success stories of bringing back coffee and school rebuilding in Haiti to show the difference that the donations could make.
“There are many ways in which those of you who are here can help them. Even people with a modest amount of resources,” he said as he announced the commitment by the group Para la Naturaleza to plant 750,000 trees to replace the millions of trees that Puerto Rico lost in Hurricane Maria. “What they are doing is great. They need to plant more than 20 million trees. This is something we can all do, and we should do.”
The commitments announced Tuesday:
▪ Dominica plans to launch the Climate Resilience Agency of Dominica (CREAD) to fund, design and coordinate climate resilient projects with the objective of making Dominica the first climate resilient nation in the world. Through CREAD’s $600 million commitment, Dominica will rebuild and repair major roads, rebuild approximately 20 schools and 27 health facilities, and provide support for 8,500 farmers across the island.
▪ Digicel will repair or rebuild seven schools and 360 homes in Dominica that were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Maria. The telecom giant will focus its efforts in communities on the eastern side of the island and in Dominica’s Kalinago Territory.
▪ The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Airlink and the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands will conduct health screenings for schoolchildren in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
▪ Afya Foundation will ship needed medical supplies and equipment to Puerto Rico to support Acción Social’s 22 elder care centers, serving 1,000 patients across 76 municipalities.
▪ Para la Naturaleza has committed to plant 750,000 native and endemic trees that are more resilient to hurricanes.
▪ Americares will support 5,000 health workers, emergency responders and social service providers over the next 18 months in Puerto Rico to address mental health challenges. It will train workers to increase their coping skills in order to avoid job burnout and manage stress effectively.
▪ International Medical Corps will provide improved access to primary healthcare for more than 1,000 school-aged children in Puerto Rico by partnering with Med Centro to expand their health in schools program.
▪ Direct Relief, the Hispanic Federation, the Solar Foundation and New Energy PR will install solar systems at 12 primary care clinics in Puerto Rico. The clinics have been identified in partnership with the Asociación de Salud Primaria de Puerto Rico. The solar systems will cover at minimum the critical energy needs of each site, allowing them to restore services and ensure continuity of care, regardless of access to grid power.