The storm-ravaged Caribbean just got $2 billion to rebuild. But is that enough money?

Rebuilding a nation brick by brick in a climate change era

Brutalized by Hurricane Maria, the eastern Caribbean island of Dominica wants to become the world’s first climate-resilient nation.
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Brutalized by Hurricane Maria, the eastern Caribbean island of Dominica wants to become the world’s first climate-resilient nation.

The international community is pledging over $2 billion, almost half in loans and debt relief, to help rebuild the Caribbean islands decimated by this year’s string of hurricanes.

Made during a one-day United Nations and Caribbean Community (CARICOM) conference in New York, the pledges came from some familiar donors and some surprising new ones. They included The Netherlands’ $700 million pledge, the European Union’s $352 million, quake-recovering Mexico’s $27 million and $1 million in debt forgiveness from politically troubled Venezuela.

The two biggest surprises, however, came from the United States and Haiti, members said.

The U.S., long a leading donor and supporter of the region, pledged just $4.3 million, far less than Canada’s $78 million or China’s $30 million. Haiti, still recovering from its own 2010 earthquake and brushes with two hurricanes, offered up $250,000.

“We are very touched by the contribution made by Haiti,” said Roosevelt Skerrit, prime minister of hurricane-devastated Dominica.

Skerrit acknowledged that the amount raised at the conference is far less than the $5 billion-plus the United Nations says is needed for the Caribbean to rebuild following the one-two punch of Irma and Maria within a two-week span in September. But he welcomed what he called “the first effort.”

“I am very satisfied,” said Skerrit, who added that he hopes continued lobbying and engagement with donors will yield more contributions.

According to the latest post-Irma assessment, Dominica’s hurricane damage is at $1.3 billion, which is about the amount donors pledged in grants. Hurricane Maria, which struck the island after Irma, decimated decades of development gains there and damaged 60 percent of its housing and infrastructure.

During a visit by United Nations General Secretary António Guterres to Dominica in October, Skerrit declared his intention to transform the once lush green island into the “world’s first climate-resistant nation.”

Guterres’ visit included a stop in Antigua and Barbuda, where Prime Minister Gaston Browne emphasized the Caribbean’s long-standing push to find grant funding and loans at low rates, known as concessionary development financing.

Browne said Tuesday’s pledging conference is a good start.

He noted that The Netherlands’ $700 million is slated for assistance to its territories including St. Maarten, which was hammered by Irma. He called the U.S.’s $4.3 million “a disappointing pledge from the wealthiest country on the planet to assist countries in distress, located within its so-called third border,” as the Caribbean region is sometimes known.

Barbuda’s damage surpasses $130 million, and its recovery needs are more than $220 million, the United Nations said.

Browne said he thinks Barbuda will get $30 million of that from grants. “The balance will come through borrowing,” further exacerbating its financial problems, he said.

He said regional leaders are concerned about accessibility and early disbursement and hope that the donors will eliminate a lot of the red tape to ensure that the pledged funds are made available as needed.

Though billed as a pledging conference, the gathering wasn’t just about raising money but also about raising awareness about climate change and its devastating impact on the region.

“The task of rebuilding is beyond us,” Irwin LaRocque, secretary general of the 15-member CARICOM regional bloc said.

An overwhelming number of CARICOM’s members and associate members — Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, British Virgin Islands, Dominica, Haiti, St. Kitts and Nevis and the Turks and Caicos Islands — were affected by the deadly storms. So, too, were Cuba, the Dominican Republic, the French-Dutch territory of St. Maarten-St Martin and the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Reginald Dumas, a former UN adviser on Haiti and longtime observer of regional politics, said the question now is how the money will be used to safeguard the islands, most of which are low-lying, from the effects of climate change.

“These islands are flat and they can be inundated in short order,” said Dumas, who lives in Trinidad and Tobago, which was spared from hurricanes this year but endured devastating floods. “The question is... what proposals and solutions is the international community coming up with to help these islands guard against the damage that they are bound to get?”

The Caribbean, he said, has “some serious problems facing us as small islands, where the hurricanes are going to keep coming...and unfortunately they are coming straight at us across the Atlantic. What do we do?”

He pushed for CARICOM to take the lead in the discussion, saying this is the time for the organization to “really get absolutely serious.”

Like Browne, he called the United States’ pledge “very disappointing.”

“The $4.3 million from the United States is really ridiculous. Then again, it seems that the Trump administration doesn’t believe there is climate change,” Dumas said. “The rest of us have to become very serious because it’s not only our livelihood but our lives and those coming after us that are at stake, and we have to come up with fast solutions.”

As for Haiti, which also made a donation of generators and other hurricane supplies to the Turks and Caicos, Dumas said he believes it’s a “gesture of solidarity and also of self preservation because they are vulnerable, too, as we know.”

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