It started in the evening on September 18, two years ago. The winds picked up; waves began crashing ashore with intensity; the skies darkened.
Unbeknownst to the people of Dominica, Hurricane Maria was slowly gathering the strength it needed to destroy over 90 percent of the island’s structures, cripple its economy, and force a small country that did little to cause climate change to reckon with its consequences.
Yet despite the ominous signs befalling Dominica, many residents say they were no more worried than usual. The tiny Caribbean island, after all, is no stranger to hurricanes. Situated in the eastern Caribbean, Dominica sits just over 500 miles northeast of Caracas, Venezuela and among a string of islands that stich the Caribbean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. And though the soon-to-end 2019 hurricane season spared the nation, it may not be so lucky next year, or the year after.
In the span of a single night, Dominica was torn apart. But from the devastation, the tiny country forged a new goal: to become the world’s first climate-resilient nation, capable of prospering despite a new era of storms made worse by climate change.
The storm approaches
As Maria approached land, the island’s residents quickly realized the storm would be much worse than they had anticipated.
“We kept listening to the radio to figure out what was going on,” says Ann Aeevieal, a local cook at the Tamarind Tree Hotel. “They said it was a Category 2, and then a Category 3.”
As we continue pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, warming the planet, hurricanes like Maria are expected to grow in number and intensity. Studies have shown that the Atlantic Ocean is heating up, causing storms to become more common, intense, and long-lasting.
Warm ocean water is fuel to a hurricane, powering it like an engine. The warmer the water, the more the engine revs, growing faster, larger, and capable of dumping more water. As Maria neared the Caribbean Sea, it burst to life, a process meteorologists describe as “rapid intensification.”
Stephanie Astaphan, an employee at the island’s Secret Bay hotel, says, “When you’re living in the hurricane belt, you get desensitized. And then Anderson Cooper said, ‘The island of Dominica is about to get a Category 5’ and I had this out-of-body experience.”
Then the storm hit. Local baker Sheila Jelviel lives in Scott’s Head, a southeastern neighborhood where the hurricane struck the hardest. Just after nightfall on September 18, the sea rushed into her home. A small skiff rammed itself through her front door. “We had to go out the window in the back to escape,” she recalls.
The push for resilience
Though Maria was the worst storm to ever strike Dominica, the country’s economy has been shaken several times over the past decade, absorbing major hurricanes and tropical storms in 2015, 2013, and 2010.
Hurricane Erika wiped out an estimated 90 percent of Dominica’s GDP in 2015. By comparison, the World Trade Organization estimates that Hurricane Maria cost Dominica just over two years’ worth of economic output. Financial experts anticipate it will be roughly three more years before Dominica can return to its pre-hurricane state.
Five days after the storm hit, Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit addressed the United Nations General Assembly.
“I come to you straight from the front line of the war on climate change,” Skerrit said in his address. “In the past, we would prepare for one heavy storm a year. Now, thousands of storms form on a breeze in the mid-Atlantic and line up to pound us with maximum force and fury.”
Skerrit’s impassioned speech was a plea for the funds to make Dominica into the world’s first fully climate resilient nation. It requires not replacing what was lost, but building for a future where climate change all but guarantees a storm of Maria’s scale will strike again. Dominica is striving to construct not only hurricane-proof buildings but also a diverse economy, including a tourism sector that attracts more high-end spenders and an agricultural system that grows a variety of fruits and vegetables eaten locally, rather than primarily exporting bananas.
The island also needs to appear pristine. While Dominica’s economy has grown from selling agricultural goods and timber, the island itself is the product it sells to the world. In an area only slightly larger than Austin, Texas, Dominica contains 365 rivers, enough to swim in a new one every day for a year, locals like to point out. There are active volcanoes, lush rainforests, stunning coral reefs, and black sand beaches. On travel websites, it’s billed as the Nature Island, a destination for the athletic adventurer or the affluent yogi in search of retreat.
“The challenges are not just related to infrastructure. Resilience in our view is how vulnerable you are in the first place,” says Pepe Bardouille, CEO of the government’s Climate Resilience Execution Agency of Dominica (CREAD).
Amid new policies and regulations, Bardouille says there’s a new collective consciousness now preparing for future hurricanes like Maria.
“It’s incumbent on every citizen to know what they need to do for themselves,” she says. “Making decisions about what they’re building, whether they’re getting insurance, those are individual decisions—not things a government can do.”
CREAD was established in early 2018 to ensure that every sector building back after Maria was keeping climate resilience in mind. Uniform building codes, varied agricultural products, new geothermal energy plants, improved healthcare facilities, reliable transportation infrastructure on land and at sea—it’s CREAD’s job to figure out how to hurricane-proof everything as much as possible.
“How to keep a society and economy in a small country with a limited tax base and a huge number of climactic challenges running on a shoestring. Those are the challenges,” Bardouille says.
One component of Dominica’s plan to become climate resilient involves banning plastic. The reasoning for the ban boils down to infrastructure. Dominica’s waste collection system, run by the government-created, privately run Dominica Waste Management Corporation, collects trash that goes into a single, already-stuffed landfill. But what if residents could instead individually compost their single-use items in the hot, humid conditions of the Caribbean? Might they lessen, or avoid altogether, the need for recycling machines that may not hold up during the next version of Hurricane Maria?
In resorts and national parks, Dominica lives up to its Nature Island title. It’s hard to find litter of any kind. But venture into the island’s cities, drive along its roads, or peek inside a drainage ditch, and plastic trash is everywhere.
Less visible trash would make Dominica look cleaner, and a pristine Caribbean island is a place where tourists want to visit and spend money.
“It would be very simplistic to say this is just about building back,” says Bardouille.
“I think there’s a serious underestimation of the amount of trauma and post-traumatic stress, and the impact it had on the fabric of our society. We have to now look at the economic strength of our nation,” she says.
In 2018, Dominica passed the Climate Resilience Act, which fully came into effect on the first day of 2019, and in a budget address delivered last July the prime minister highlighted how far the country had come. The economy has grown by 9 percent. Tourism is on the rise. All schools are open. A new state-of-the-art hospital welcomed patients in August. Five hundred new homes have been built and more than 1,000 are under construction.
The government expects banana production to return to pre-Maria levels, and, to ensure food security, distributed seeds to farmers for other staple crops like dasheen, yams, potatoes, and passion fruit, which are are sold locally.
Progress and stagnation
It’s Easter weekend in Scott’s Head, and the sky is free of clouds. The ocean laps the shore with meditative regularity; the wind barely moves. It’s difficult to imagine the chaos that ripped this neighborhood to shreds and left the island so destroyed that it was repeatedly described as a war zone.
Jelviel, whose home was rammed by a boat during the hurricane, shows me her house, now mostly rebuilt. The government assisted her with two windows and a door, but the 64-year-old mostly credits her neighbors with helping restore her home. The community in Scott’s Head is tightly knit, she says, and they took care of each other after the storm.
Just two blocks south, Hidjes Adams, the public relations officer at a local fishing co-op, leans against a pumping station for fishing boats, holding back tears as he recalls the days following Maria.
“It was a monster,” he says of the hurricane. “The damages are still existing. I saw starvation, people grasping, fighting for food and for water. There are still people without roofs as we speak.”
This is where citizens and government sometimes clash. Rebuilding is expensive, and reconstructing a home or a business that can weather a Category 5 hurricane is even costlier. Many luxury hotels and resorts have benefited from the country’s Citizenship by Investment Program, which gives a second passport to foreigners who significantly invest in local businesses.
Others living in small, low-income communities like Scott’s Head feel left behind. Jelviel says that with some help she could buy a bigger stove and bake more bread every morning. She would earn more money and be better able to fortify her home, she says.
“We cannot rebuild,” she says of her neighborhood, “but there is a lot of potential.”
What unites the country, however, is a sense of patriotism forged from shared trauma. Embroidered on t-shirts and painted on buildings is the mantra “Dominica strong.”
It’s how every citizen seems to describe their country—strong in the wake of disaster.
“People are taking things more seriously. They’re building much stronger,” says Aeevieal from the Tamarind Tree Hotel. “I think it’s a good comeback. We did a good job.”
Nature, too, is healing its own scars.
When Hurricane Maria blew through Dominica in 2017, the winds were so intense that leaves were stripped from trees.
It worried Bertrand Jno Baptiste, or Dr. Birdy, the island’s foremost bird expert. Would the forests still be hospitable to the imperial parrot, called the sisserou locally, a large, multi-colored bird with bright, lime-green feathers? The country’s national bird is endangered and found only on the island. Baptiste spent hours searching for it, listening for its loud call and trying to spot its graceful flights.
“I did not think it was going to come back. It was so bad,” he says. But after 13 hours of watching, one appeared, and then more, and now the birds are routinely spotted flying above the rainforest canopy.
The trees at the edge of the rainforest still show the scars of Maria. Bare branches face the ocean, still struggling to regrow what was ripped off in an instant.
“There’s no one who doesn’t think this won’t happen again,” says Baptiste.
Like their famous parrot and rainforests, Dominica is coming back to life, albeit with the scars to remind Dominicans that hurricanes of such magnitude will always be part of their reality. To become truly hurricane proof is to function like the country’s tropical ecosystem, capable of recovering—even thriving—in the wake of disaster.