'Building back better': a resilient Caribbean after the 2017 hurricanes

Briefing papers
January 2018

'Building back better' after a disaster intuitively makes sense, but it is challenging and requires a deep understanding of the causes of disaster, recovery processes and future climate and other risks. Critically, it requires high levels of commitment from policymakers and technical staff in national governments, from the international aid agencies and donors supporting recovery, and from communities already engaged in recovery.

This briefing paper highlights how lessons from history and past recovery can inform decisions around 'building back better' after hurricanes Irma and Maria. These two Category 5 hurricanes caused total losses estimated at US$130 billion. Although the countries and communities most affected will need years to recover, decisions and actions that are taken in the short term, such as repairs to housing, will have repercussions for long-term resilience.

While disasters are a common feature of the Caribbean, there has not been much serious reflection on the types of action needed for long-term resilience. Compounding this are the looming effects of climate change. Sea-level rise, in particular, is a huge problem for the Caribbean, but we are also likely to see more Category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the future.

Understanding the historical and cultural factors that led to disaster is critical to identifying solutions. There is no ‘quick fix’ for building resilience in the Caribbean, but disasters do provide a space for reflection, as well as an opportunity for policies and investments that consider future threats.To avoid further human suffering, economic losses, environmental degradation and the reversal of hard-fought development gains, 'building back better' must be more than just a slogan. It requires a broad set of policies and investments in housing and infrastructure, economic development and ecosystem protection that are well coordinated, that build on lessons from the past and that manage the tension between short-term imperatives and long-term resilience needs.

This briefing paper has been prepared to help policy-makers and practitioners strengthen recovery in the Caribbean after the 2017 hurricanes. The challenges for promoting a more resilient Caribbean are significant; this will require a comprehensive disaster impact assessment (to understand what was most affected and why), legal and regulatory reforms, a recovery strategy closely linked to existing development and investment plans, and more participatory forms of planning than many of these countries had in place prior to the hurricanes. It will also require more systematic use of hazard information and climate science in planning decisions, to manage future risks.