– Six months ago, on 18 September 2017, Category 5 Hurricane Maria struck Dominica wreaking unimaginable disaster. Thirty-one people died, 33 more remain missing. Roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and over 40 percent of homes were destroyed or severely damaged.
Agriculture, a major source of income for poor people on the island, suffered tremendously: almost all crops were lost. The lush green forests, pride of this country and a UNESCO World Heritage site, were reduced to a barren, eerie landscape.
Five days later, I was at the General Assembly watching Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit deliver his address. “I come to you straight from the front line of the war on climate change,” he said, still visibly shaken.
“To deny climate change is to deny a truth we have just lived,” he added, appealing for international support. I was moved by his words. I remember thinking: this speech should be shown in every classroom, boardroom, parliament around the world!
Much to my surprise, the following day my boss asked me if I’d be willing to go to Dominica to head the UN Crisis Management Unit (CMU), tasked with coordinating the relief and recovery efforts on the ground. I had 24 hours to respond. PM Skerrrit’s words reverberated in my mind. “These are the moments for which the United Nations exists!” he had said. And so I went.
The CMU configuration (UNDP-OCHA) reflected an innovative approach to crisis response, inspired by the New Way of Working agenda, which calls for humanitarian and development actors to collaborate from the outset of a relief operation to ensure that long-term recovery needs are addressed as early as possible.
I was privileged to find exceptional colleagues on the ground from UN sister agencies (OCHA, WFP, IOM, UNICEF, FAO, PAHO), NGOs, and regional entities. Sharing the same working space in a semi-destroyed hotel in Roseau, we forged a collaboration built on our respective strengths.
We met government counterparts who admirably carried out their duties despite the situation. We drew inspiration from the determination of the Dominicans to rebuild their lives.
Shortly after my arrival, UN Secretary-General António Guterres came to visit, demonstrating the solidarity and commitment of the UN at the highest level. In the following days and weeks, thanks to generous donor support, the UN and partners distributed food, water, tarpaulins and other relief items.
We set up logistics and communications facilities, assisted the authorities in reopening schools and hospitals, supported emergency employment for debris removal, and provided counseling and cash support to vulnerable people for basic needs and home repair.
The New Way of Working became a strong partnership based on a clear division of labour within the CMU. While my OCHA colleagues focused on emergency coordination, doing a phenomenal job, my UNDP team and I worked with the government to lay the groundwork for long-term recovery.
Barely a month after the hurricane, despite logistical challenges, a comprehensive Post-Disaster Needs Assessment mission was undertaken, in partnership with the World Bank and the European Union. It provided the basis for the recovery strategy presented at the UNDP-CARICOM High-Level Conference for the Caribbean in November, which yielded over US$2.5 billion in international pledges.
Innovation was a key component of UNDP’s response. Jointly with the Ministry of Housing, we partnered with Microsoft – who donated tablets and designed a specific application – to undertake a comprehensive damage assessment that covered over 29,000 structures islandwide, generating key data for the reconstruction plan.
We also pioneered a collaboration with international NGO Engineers Without Borders to help the Ministry of Planning rewrite the Housing Guidelines to enhance structural resilience and to carry out training/certification for over 400 contractors and engineers.
Thanks to grants from China and India, we initiated programmes for resilient roofing, while the EU and the UK supported our debris removal initiative, which provided temporary employment to hundreds of hurricane-affected Dominicans. We provided advice to the government on recovery planning and the creation of a National Reconstruction Agency for Climate Resilience, based on international best practices.
These are not, strictly speaking, humanitarian activities, but in the aftermath of a crisis they are instrumental for long-term recovery. The sense of urgency of the national authorities was palpable, and we were able to respond quickly because we were there from the beginning. This is what the New Way of Working is all about.
By the end of 2017, OCHA phased out and the CMU was dissolved, its mission accomplished. We had provided humanitarian support and helped lay the foundations for long-term recovery. I departed Dominica at the end of January to return to New York, but many colleagues stayed to continue the work.
Despite considerable progress, much remains to be done to restore normalcy in the lives of Dominicans. With another hurricane season coming fast on the horizon, there is no time to spare.
Luca Renda is Senior Strategic Advisor for the UN Development Programme’s Regional Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean.