At the height of hurricane Dorian’s fury, 185 mile per hour winds rattled Pauline Saunders’ home, hammering wind and water at structural weak spots. “The rain was coming in. We tried to close up the windows, but we couldn’t, the force was so strong,” she recalls.
It was 1st September 2019 on Abaco, an island in the Commonwealth of The Bahamas archipelago. The category five hurricane hovered for over 48 hours, packing wind gusts of 220 miles per hour and 20-foot storm surges. On record it’s the strongest to ever make landfall in the country, and one of the most powerful in human history.
Pauline watched as “cesspit water started flowing in like a faucet in the backyard, and water started to come inside the house”. She sought refuge in a friend’s apartment. “When I came back to check on my place, all the windows were burst out, the roof was opened up, so my place was flooded”.
In the aftermath, an inconvenient truth had become real: Saunders’ home, like many others in the direct path of Hurricane Dorian, was not built for hurricane resilience.
Half of the houses and buildings in eastern Grand Bahama and Abaco were either destroyed or severely damaged, and 100% were decimated in several districts – 3000 in total.
Dorian left behind 3.4 billion USD in damage – equal to one-quarter of the nation’s GDP, says the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Seventy-four people died and 245 were estimated to be missing a year later. More than 29,500 people were homeless and/or jobless, and 2,500 small and medium sized businesses impacted. In its wake, 1.7 million cubic metres of debris choked gullies, roadways and yards. Overwhelmed by floodwater, houses in 50 plus subdivisions were mold contaminated – a health hazard.
“True recovery begins with the actions taken to reduce vulnerability to risks and improve resilience, while at the same time, reducing the time it takes to recover from crisis,” concluded Denise E Antonio, UNDP Resident Representative assigned to six countries in the Caribbean including The Bahamas.
Leading a surge team days after the storm, and later, efforts to craft UNDP’s crisis prevention and recovery intervention, Antonio reiterated Government’s call for resilient recovery based on ‘Building Back Better’. “We must prepare for what is fast becoming the new norm - increasingly powerful and destructive storms that illustrate the harsh reality of climate change,” she concluded.
Led by Government, inclusive resilience-building became a guiding force for UNDP support. Bahamas took aim at sustainable and resilient construction methods; emergency employment for environmental clean ups; long-term resilient recovery plans; and build back better know how. The goal was to ensure Bahamians like Pauline Saunders could face future disasters with minimum disruption.
Digital applications partly powered the process at the outset. In partnership with Engineers Without Borders, 20 Ministry of Public Works (MOPW) officials were trained to use UNDP’s Housing and Building Damage Assessment (HBDA) mobile app to rapidly determine the types, extent and causes of the damage. The tool helped the MOPW team assess 5,276 structures, generating quality data including real-time geo-referenced reports, to inform resilient recovery plans.
Antonio says quality research informed by quality data is a key plank of UNDP’s support, yielding a raft of research papers to inform policy. These include a Marine Debris Plan and an environment restoration Plan for hurricane affected biodiversity hotspots and Socio Economic Impact Assessments. But perhaps the most significant plank in the resilience ‘architecture’ to date came with the development of Resilient Recovery Policy & Guidelines, a National Disaster Resiliency Strategy and Implementation Plan, and an Institutional Assessment Report. All three were approved by Cabinet on 27th October 2020. “The stage is now being set for a hurricane resilient future for The Bahamas”, the Resident Representative said.
“These Cabinet-approved plans provide the policy framework for the government to prepare, respond and recover from disaster, and a road map for the institutional development of the Ministry of Disaster Preparedness, Management and Reconstruction”, explained UNDP’s Ava Whyte Anderson, Programme Analyst, Capacity Development, who provides oversight for the Bahamas recovery project. “This”, she said, “is where the road to resilient recovery starts”.
John Michael Clarke, Chairman of the Disaster Reconstruction Authority underscored the pivotal role of these developments, noting that UNDP’s collaboration with NEMA and the DRA has not only borne fruit but proven to be essential in Bahamas’ resilient construction drive. “Since the devastating effects of Hurricane Dorian on the Bahamas islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama, UNDP has played a vital role. First with assisting in the organization of the recovery effort and then with the creation of knowledge-based tools to aid in the long-term reconstruction,” he said.
On the ground, The Bahamas and UNDP partnered to get valuable ‘build better’ knowledge into the hands of the people to set foundations for a culture shift. A mobile Technical Assistance Centre (TAC) in a repurposed RV was deployed to Grand Bahama, offering door to door home repair advisory services to reinforce ‘build better’ tips, techniques and resources. It is the Caribbean’s first, based on a tripartite partnership model involving UNDP, Rotary Clubs of The Bahamas and the Disaster Reconstruction Authority (DRA). UNDP’s Bahamas Recovery Project Coordinator Etoile Pinder says the TACs conducted 309 home assessments for DRA on Grand Bahama and provided guidance to NGOs working on construction and rebuild projects via 20 virtual consultations in Abaco.