By: Christopher Visentin
The recent spate of devastating hurricanes has brought the fragile economies of many small Caribbean communities in the storms’ path to a shuddering halt. Pressing issues such as regaining running water and electricity and rebuilding homes have replaced daily activities and ordinary concerns.
As these communities struggle simply to regain basic necessities, thoughts of an economic recovery are secondary, but nevertheless are still of vital importance.
Hurricanes Irma and Maria laid bare two tough questions for those communities that rely heavily on the tourism industry: what happens when the main economic activity is blown away? How might a community work towards recovery?
The Conversation, a not-for-profit news outlet that publishes articles and reports for the academic and research community, points out that economies most dependent on tourism are often most likely to suffer from natural disasters. These economies, and the communities to which they belong, inhabit the “pleasure periphery”—coastal destinations that are “most vulnerable to natural disasters.”
Given that natural disasters are a sad fact of life in such destinations, it is important to determine how such communities can respond when they do occur.
The Conversation article notes that the tourism industry has developed an approach to respond to disasters that has made it “increasingly resilient” to threats. That approach can be broken down into phases: readiness, reduction, and finally response and recovery.
Speedy and effective management of a recovery depends upon close relationships between local government, business, emergency response teams, and the community itself. These ties can be forged far before disaster strikes, but must be reinforced and maintained throughout a crisis.
It is helpful to examine a specific community’s response to and successful recovery from disaster.
In 1989 Hurricane Hugo caused $2.8 billion in damage to Charleston, South Carolina; 50,000 Charleston residents were left homeless a week after the storm, and more went without electricity or running water. Three quarters of the buildings in the historic downtown area sustained damage.
An International Economic Development Council case study outlines a response in Charleston that in many ways mirrored the aforementioned “readiness, reduction, response, recovery” framework. After the community addressed the immediate needs of residents, local business leaders urged the government to prioritize the more important tourism areas so that the tourism industry might begin supplying income to the community as soon as possible.
Available funds were focused on addressing the public perception of Charleston’s situation: ad campaigns and television appearances worked to overcome notions that damage to the area was even worse than it was and assure tourists they could soon visit the area again.
The community also allocated recovery resources to speed along urban renewal and improve quality of life in community centers, with the understanding that “improving the quality of life and meeting the needs of residents often translates into an attractive place for both residents and visitors.”
These efforts enabled Charleston to recover quickly from the extensive damage caused by Hurricane Hugo.
Due largely to close cooperation between public and private sectors and a clear vision for moving forward, the community was able to maximize its resources and the efficacy of each recovery initiative.
There is still a long road of recovery ahead for communities hit by hurricanes Maria and Irma. As the New York Times notes, immediate relief in the form of medical assistance, infrastructure, and home repair is still the priority in many areas.
Because of the importance of the tourism industry to the region, however, its recovery remains a major concern. In the Florida Keys, the Miami Herald reports, the Tourist Development Council is already looking to revive the industry, even while residents work to repair homes and overcome hardships. As a Council representative notes, the tourism economy is key to funding residents’ rebuilding efforts.
The Virgin Islands’ communities are struggling to gain a footing on the long road to recovery. As the Virgin Islands Consortium reports, Governor Mapp’s VI Hurricane Resiliency Advisory Group will assess damage and develop and implement a “coordinated economic recovery plan.”
Both the public and private sectors must cooperate closely in order to succeed. They must have the will to commit the available funding toward a fast recovery, and must control the narrative of the community’s recovery.
With a concerted, community-wide effort, the Virgin Islands may be able to become more resilient for the future. The task is a daunting one, but success is possible and not without precedent.