When Hurricane Dorian struck the Bahamas last month as a destructive Category 5 storm that lingered for three days killing more than 50 people and leaving thousands homeless, the first reaction of Cayman Islands residents was to come to the aid of a stricken neighbour in need.
Donations flooded into the Red Cross, the police helicopter was dispatched to join the relief effort, and Premier Alden McLaughlin flew to Nassau with a planeload of medical supplies donated by Cayman’s hospitals.
Now as the dust settles and Abaco and Grand Bahama begin the long road to recovery, another reaction is starting to surface: Fear.
The onslaught of disastrous storms to hit the region in the last few years aligns with the hypothesis of climate scientists that warming oceans are likely to fuel more destructive hurricanes.
Caymanians who lived through Hurricane Ivan might have thought they had faced the worst that nature had to offer and lived to tell the tale. But, from the news reports, the accounts of the Cayman police pilots who flew into Abaco and from the premier who met with his Bahamian counterpart in the early days of the relief effort, Dorian was many times worse than anything they had seen before. Worse than Maria, worse than Irma, worse even than Ivan.
McLaughlin acknowledges that part of the reason Cayman has been so quick to help its neighbours in the aftermath of recent disasters is the sobering knowledge that one day we could be the ones in need of help.
“I think there is little question anymore that climate change is a huge factor in the intensity of these cyclones,” he said.
But he has faith that Cayman is prepared to withstand a storm, even of the magnitude of Dorian.
“Cayman is much more resilient now than it was before Ivan. We built back much stronger,” McLaughlin said.
Governor Martyn Roper, who oversees the UK’s support to Cayman on natural disasters, said he was extremely conscious of the growing threat that climate change poses to the islands. Though Cayman can only make a small impact in terms of reducing the carbon emissions fuelling the changes in the weather, he believes a greater focus on bracing for its impacts may be necessary.
“Hurricane Dorian devastating the Bahamas recently brings home the stark reality of the effect of severe weather,” the governor said. “I believe we do need to give more thought to climate change mitigation and ensure we are factoring this into wider policy making and economic planning.”
How is Cayman preparing?
At Hazard Management Cayman Islands, Director Danielle Coleman’s job is to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
While Dorian may have been a wake-up call for some, she said, the possibility of a similar strength storm striking Cayman was on the radar of emergency planners.
The 2019 Hurricane Exercise – essentially a dress rehearsal for the emergency response teams involved in disaster management – considered a hurricane scenario that resulted in significantly greater impact than experienced during Ivan.
“A hurricane similar to Dorian should be something everyone in the region is prepared for,” Coleman said.
“The message we reinforce to the public is that Hurricane Ivan is not the worst-case scenario we could face in the Cayman Islands.”
Some of the steps taken since Ivan to improve Cayman’s resilience include changes to planning regulations to ensure critical buildings are constructed to withstand winds of 150 miles per hour. Vital road infrastructure has also received greater protection through the construction of sea walls and the increased elevation of new roads.
Shelter availability and training for volunteers has improved, but space remains an issue. The completion of the new John Gray High School and construction of a new shelter at the Church of God in Bodden Town will add capacity. Space for animals has also been created at two shelters to help ensure people don’t put themselves at risk to protect their pets.
More recently, radio communications equipment was upgraded and Hazard Management has invested in a new radio-interrupt system to broadcast emergency messages quickly. A project to expand that technology to smartphones is under consideration.
Cayman’s Department of Environment is at the forefront of investigating the likely impacts of climate change, with deputy director Tim Austin warning that the issue is not simply stronger storms.
He said reefs formed a natural barrier against storm surge, as evidenced during Hurricane Ivan when coastal properties were harder hit in areas without offshore reefs.
“The more stress coral reefs come under, the less healthy and less resilient they become and, therefore, less able to mitigate surge during a tropical cyclone event,” said Austin.
He said the planned expansion of Cayman’s marine parks would help protect this safety net.
The designated marine park zones will also help guard against overfishing and other man-made threats that have weakened Cayman’s reef system over the past decades.
“Cayman’s ‘no take’ zones for marine life will increase from 14% to 48% of total coastal areas on all three islands once the new marine parks areas take effect,” Austin said.
“This will place Cayman as a leader within the region on Marine Protected Areas and may encourage others to follow the example.”