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This Tiny Country Says It Can Beat Climate Change

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The prime minister of Dominica stood in his office atop the country’s main government complex, ready to explain how he was making his tiny Caribbean nation the world leader in rebounding from natural disasters. But first he felt compelled to address the obvious: The building had no electricity, reported Bloomberg (US).

Roosevelt Skerrit, whose rounded cheeks and tall frame allow him to come across as both jovial and imposing, dismissed the blackout with a flick of his hand. His only concession to the absence of lights or air conditioning, which in other countries might have sent the building’s staff shuffling out into the steamy May streets, was to remove his suit jacket. “We are resilient people,” he said, sweating slightly.

This former British colony tucked between Guadeloupe and Martinique is testing the limits of that mantra. After Hurricane Maria devastated Dominica last September, Skerrit pledged to rebuild it into the world’s first “fully climate-resilient” nation. The promise made him a celebrity among international donors, drawing support from the Clinton Foundation, Irish billionaire Denis O’Brien, the World Bank, and dozens of aid groups. The island has become a 300-square-mile laboratory for what might be the question of the century: How much can a country inoculate itself against the effects of global warming?

The early results are mixed. Foreign advisers worry that homes are being rebuilt to the same shoddy standards as before the storm. Power and telecom companies say it’s too expensive to shield their entire networks against Category 5 storms. The new hurricane season started in June. “Time isn’t on our side,” Skerrit acknowledged. But without sweeping reform, he said, Dominica won’t be able to withstand future storms—or escape them. “We’re an island,” he said in his office. “There’s nowhere to run.”

The hurricane transformed Dominica into an ideal test case for climate-proofing a nation. Covered by mountains and rainforest, the island was less developed than its neighbors even before the storm; its population of 75,000 relied mostly on the export of bananas and other crops, as well as day-tripping cruise ship passengers and tourists seeking something more exerting than sandy beaches.

Maria inflicted $1.3 billion in damage, equal to 225 percent of the country’s annual economic output—more than twice the corresponding figure in nearby Puerto Rico. It destroyed or severely damaged almost half the island’s 29,000 buildings, along with much of its power and telecom infrastructure; the island’s towns remain pockmarked by the husks of ruined homes, its forests littered with half-toppled trees. As many as a third of residents have fled. Dominica, so named because Christopher Columbus first saw it on a Sunday, offered planners and engineers a unique opportunity—a chance to rebuild a country almost from scratch.

The resilience plans are sweeping: replacing the buildings and bridges damaged by Maria with hurricane-proof versions, building more and higher seawalls, creating sheltered harbors and higher riverbanks, replacing bananas with hurricane-resistant crops, constructing geothermal power plants, burying electrical wires, and even relocating entire towns.

This could all increase the cost of rebuilding by 30 percent to 40 percent, Skerrit said; one estimate puts the price tag at $600 million, for a country whose current population is somewhere between that of Hoboken and Schenectady.

Overseas development agencies, foundations, and international donors have been quick to offer help. In February, former President Bill Clinton visited, pledging to coordinate assistance. O’Brien’s Digicel Ltd., Dominica’s largest mobile phone operator, has provided $1.4 million worth of aid; according to Digicel, O’Brien also introduced Skerrit to senior officials at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In May, a delegation from the bank visited Roseau, Dominica’s capital, to sign documents authorizing $65 million, part of a $115 million package.

Valerie Hickey, the World Bank’s program manager for environment, presented Dominica as a model for others to follow. For most storm-ravaged countries, “success is basically getting back to where you were, with slightly better housing standards,” she said. By contrast, Dominica is pursuing institutional change: a labor force with the skills to prepare and guide a faster recovery after the next storm, for example, and better financial planning to keep the government from going broke afterward.

But most of those changes are still in the planning phase. The agency Skerrit has proposed to handle those decisions, the Climate Resilience Execution Agency for Dominica, still has no director. “They’re certainly doing an awful lot of thinking,” Hickey said.

The island’s optimism is running up against a simple reality: Hurricane-proofing is expensive. Digicel, which lost 21 of its cell towers in Maria, is building back just the three that handle the most traffic to withstand another Category 5 storm—a level of protection that can boost construction costs fivefold. “There’s an economic trade-off here,” Richard Thorpe, the company’s chief operating officer, said in an interview.

Bertilia McKenzie, managing director of Domlec, the island’s sole utility, which is owned by the Canadian firm Emera Inc., said the same constraints apply to rebuilding the country’s electricity sector. Ideally, she said, the company would put all its wires underground. “You know the cost of that?” McKenzie said. The answer is $1.3 billion—about $17,000 per resident.

Maria destroyed almost 5,000 of the island’s 25,500 houses, according to the United Nations Development Programme, while causing major damage to another 6,500. Much of the reason was how those homes were constructed: While Dominica had a building code, most people ignored it, UNDP mission head Ian King said. Unless that changes, the next big storm will do just as much damage.

Aid groups created a new construction guide, explaining steps such as how to properly secure a roof in language the typical builder could follow. The plan was to spread that information through government-run technical assistance centers, along with hiring more building inspectors to verify the rules are being followed. Yet some groups say the government has been slow to open those assistance centers or hire enough building inspectors, even as people rush to rebuild.

Another obstacle to change is aesthetic. Concrete houses came through Maria with by far the least damage, but residents say their distinctive flat roofs are unattractive—even if they’re safer. “They know that, but they don’t want it,” said Desmond Figaro, a carpenter in Thibaud, a town of a few hundred people near the northern tip of the island. “It’s got no style.”

Donors and aid workers say another reason for the slow progress is what they gingerly characterize as “capacity constraints.” In other words, the government of Dominica is overwhelmed.

One morning in May, a group of foreign advisers and government officials gathered in a conference room beneath the prime minister’s office for a weekly meeting about the housing recovery. The Dominican officials were the last to arrive; there were no seats left at the table, so they sat against the wall.

Dave Hampton, a Harvard-educated architect whose job is coordinating the housing efforts, sat at the head of the table, ticking off items on the agenda: The government had yet to provide information on how many homes it had helped repair. Nobody had told aid groups who was working for the government’s new resilience agency. The government was closing its public outreach offices at 2 p.m., preventing most people from using them.

With each item, Hampton seemed to be delicately asking the officials for their help, to no obvious effect. When Hampton mentioned a letter he had been trying to deliver to a particular high-ranking official, he jokingly offered a box of cookies to any of the government staff in the room who could help. “I think you overestimate the power of cookies,” a Dominican government employee responded. Hampton started passing around boxes of cookies anyway.

In a recent interview, Hampton said the government has since taken "much more of an active role" in the recovery, improving its coordination with aid groups.

An executive at the Clinton Foundation who works on Dominica, and who asked not be identified, said the island’s efforts have demonstrated a fundamental tension in climate resilience: Building back better takes more time, just as people demand fast action getting their roofs, power, and other services back.

In Grand Bay, a city on the island’s southern shore, a welder named Augustus Liverpool lost his roof to Maria and as of May was still waiting for a new one. Asked how he felt about the government’s response, he said simply, “I’m not pleased.”

On Dominica’s hilly northeastern coast, home to the island’s indigenous Kalinago people, Harvie Derroux sat among the ruined buildings high above the ocean and estimated that fewer than half the homes in the area had been fixed. “They should push this a little faster,” Derroux said. When the next hurricane comes, he said, the government’s advice for now is to try to find a building with a good roof.

An hour’s drive east of the capital, at the end of an incomprehensibly steep and narrow road, the purest form of climate resilience could be found in the town of Petite Savanne. The valley town was overwhelmed by floods and landslides in 2015; in response, Dominica’s government deemed it too vulnerable to protect from future storms. So the town is being abandoned, its residents moved up into concrete apartments in the hills.

On a recent morning, Crescent Antoine was tending the only remaining shop in Petite Savanne, listing the things she would miss about the place: fresh water from the river, clean air, room to grow her vegetables. Antoine said most people had resigned themselves to leaving, but they’re not excited about it. “Up there, you have nothing to do,” she said of her future home in the mountains. In an apartment complex, “there’s nowhere to plant a flower.”

Tucked in the mountains 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) away, the rising cement shell of a squat building hints at Dominica’s future. The government is paying to construct 340 new homes for Antoine and her neighbors, far from the coast or rivers, out of reach of the next flood or storm surge. Petite Savanne is one of a series of communities around the country that the government has identified as especially vulnerable, offering residents new, storm-hardened homes elsewhere. Skerrit described the approach as a holistic strategy, moving more than just houses. “The whole idea is to build communities,” he said, including shops and sporting facilities, all of it funded by the government.

Hickey, the World Bank official, praised Dominica for trying to relocate whole towns out of dangerous areas. But she said those types of radical solutions, while effective, also generate the most political pushback—an unavoidable impediment to speedy and radical reform, here and elsewhere. “If Dominica wasn’t a democracy, the prime minister and his team could make a decision and move people,” Hickey said, in what was more of an observation than a recommendation. “It would certainly be transformational.”

The biggest challenge for Dominica’s quest to become climate-resilient isn’t moving too slowly, according to Jim Curren, Dominica project leader for Engineers Without Borders. It’s what happens if everything goes as planned, and it’s still not enough.

“You had stuff blown apart that took 30 or 40 years to build,” Curren said. “If the same thing happens year after year after year, how are we going to keep up?” He said he worried about a scenario of “huge migrations of people” off the island, despite the government’s best efforts.

Nikima Royer, Digicel’s chief executive for Dominica, saw her own home damaged by the storm; she said she too worries about just how much more extreme weather the country can handle, even with the reforms Skerrit is pursuing. But she said that nobody, in Dominica or elsewhere, has found a better answer. “The world is heading into the unknown,” Royer said. “There is no playbook.”

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