Since Hurricane Maria crashed through the Caribbean last month, most of the attention has focused on Puerto Rico. But smaller nearby islands were even harder hit. Especially Dominica. It was the first to feel Maria’s Category 5, 160-mph winds. They demolished the country, leaving 27 dead, 50 still missing – and the population of 71,000 still with little access to food, water and power.
Roosevelt Skerrit is Dominica’s prime minister. He visited Miami last week and spoke with WLRN’s Tim Padgett about Dominica’s devastation, his hopes for rebuilding the island as a “climate-resilient nation,” and how the Caribbean can recover after suffering two major hurricanes – Irma and Maria – in the same month.
WLRN: The roof of your own home was blown off in Maria. Describe for us what it was like to live through what you called a “monstrous and merciless” storm.
SKERRIT: It was a very frightening experience. I have two young children and my wife. I sent them to a different location. And thank God, because had they been at the home, the two children would certainly have been in the master bedroom sleeping. And that’s where the roof collapsed first – onto the bed.
My hope and prayer at the time was that it would be just a part of the country that would be damaged – not the entire country. Unfortunately, the next morning I realized the entire country was visited, destroyed by this hurricane – beaten by Hurricane Maria.
A few days after Maria you broke down in tears on television after touring the hurricane destruction in Dominica.
You know, it’s no different from what you see in a complete war zone. Similar to what you see in Iraq. Buildings crumbling. Dark and very depressing. The hospital, the main national hospital, was severely damaged. You could see the grief and the hopelessness and the pain in the eyes of the people. People really went through a horrifying experience.
Are relief and reconstruction supplies finally getting into the island?
Yes. There were some challenges, but as the days go by we are seeing an improvement. We got help from the French government; we airlifted patients to the island of Martinique.
I didn’t know that geologically Dominica is the Caribbean’s youngest island. And it’s often described as the Caribbean’s most beautiful. What does it look like now compared to before?
More than 45 percent of our country is rainforests, protected national parks. That has been decimated, battered and destroyed. If you come to Dominica now you’ll see some greenery coming back. Had you been there after the hurricane, it was completely brown. There were no leaves whatsoever.
So what is the total damage estimate for Dominica?
Our estimate is that you’re talking about a couple billion.
Two billion dollars damage for a country whose GDP is…?
About a billion dollars.
So that’s twice your country’s GDP. How long do you think it will take for your island and all the smaller islands in the Caribbean to recover from Irma and Maria?
Well, what we’re doing is taking an opportunity to build back better. To build a more climate-resilient nation, the first in the world. And we’re now putting the master plan in place. It entails sustainable livelihoods. In respect to energy, moving more into renewables – geothermal, solar. And we’ll certainly be looking at the construction codes in the state of Florida, for example, because we share the hurricane path.
I mean, it’s going to be a huge cost, and we will welcome all of the help we can get.
Are you finding it difficult, though, to get the U.S. and the rest of the world to pay attention to the misery in Dominica and the rest of the Caribbean?
There’s some aid commitments [that have] been made. China has been very helpful; the European Union. We’ve had some very good discussions with the World Bank. And we look forward to some positive reaction on the part of the U.S. federal government.
Politics shouldn’t play a role in this situation, but Dominica has close ties to Venezuela and its authoritarian government. When you visited Washington, did anyone express concerns about that?
We have excellent relations with the United States. At the United Nations, Dominica has supported the United States 90 percent of the time. Regarding Venezuela, we simply differ about the use of language, like military intervention, which everyone opposes.
Caribbean heads of state are saying developed countries need to do more to rein in the carbon emissions that cause global warming – which scientists believe is causing stronger hurricanes.
I think so. These are real-life situations, what the Caribbean, Florida and Houston have experienced. This is not normal. We have to take concrete steps. Otherwise, we’re going to have a real international humanitarian crisis on our hands.