Before Hurricane Laura made landfall in the United States, it had already proved to be a deadly storm in three Caribbean countries, bringing torrential downpours, flooding, power outages, and other damage that killed over 20 people and has made life dangerous for millions more.
As a tropical storm, Laura pummeled the Dominican Republic last weekend with heavy rains and winds, impacting the capital Santo Domingo and the rest of the nation’s 11 million people. According to the country’s United Nations office, a total of nine people died due to the conditions that also damaged around 2,000 homes and left about 700,000 without power and around 1.5 million people without access to water.
Videos circulating online showed roads and city streets, including those of Santo Domingo, completely flooded due to rainfall and swollen rivers. But Dominican authorities have said the damage is much more widespread, with downed trees and power lines along with broken roads that make it hard to provide essential services to the millions of affected people.
New Dominican President Luis Abinader has toured the country to reassure citizens the nation will get back on its feet. “It will take us several years,” Abinader told one woman who lost her home last weekend. “We will relocate you to somewhere safe and help you with everything. The government is here for you.”
The situation is also severe in Haiti, located west of the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola. Haitian authorities report 21 people were killed after the storm hit the country on Sunday with about eight inches of rain and 50-miles-per hour winds.
While the Haitian government is still assessing the extent of the damage, the capital Port-au-Prince saw raging floods, and hundreds of thousands across the country remain without power. That’s a problem on its own, but it’s exacerbated by officials’ need to communicate with people in areas near flooded rivers and dams.
One important dam that produces electricity and irrigates crops, Peligre, was overflowing so much that authorities had to release much of its water. That put the crops in nearby valleys at risk, but the government had difficulty getting in touch with those in harm’s way without power.
“All the radio stations that are here who can call the people of the Artibonite, tell them, ‘Attention!’ Secure their belongings because there is going to be a lot of water in the Artibonite Valley,” Public Works Minister Nader Joaseus said on Sunday.
The storm weakened by the time it made it to Cuba on Monday. The island nation did see heavy rains that contributed to flooding in parts of the country and high winds that knocked out power lines, but no deaths were recorded by the government. And despite concerns that it wouldn’t hold, the seawall in the capital Havana wasn’t breached.
Cuba still has some reeling communities, though. Tens of thousands were forced to evacuate, finding shelter in government facilities or in the homes of relatives. River flooding in the mountainous southeastern region of Granma cut off certain towns from one another, and fires instigated by the storm heavily damaged a school and farm in Santiago de Cuba. Many coastal towns are still digging out of streets full of debris and mud.
But considering the damage to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, Cuba avoided the worst of the storm. Altogether, though, some experts believe the toll the storm took on these three Caribbean nations means the US should step up efforts to support the region.
Laura “reminds us that vulnerable communities are hit the hardest,” said Rebecca Bill Chavez, who served as a top Pentagon official for the Western Hemisphere from 2013 to 2017.
The Caribbean’s experience may have some lessons for the US
As Hurricane Laura now batters Texas and Louisiana, local and federal officials can draw some takeaways from what just happened to America’s southern neighbors.
Broadly speaking, Chavez says storms like Laura — potentially powered by the effects of climate change — should make clear that major weather events can destabilize countries in the region. “It is an existential threat to our Caribbean neighbors,” she said. That could lead to further complications, such as a refugee crisis, governance failures, economic strain, and much more.
Beyond the negative impact that would have on the people in those countries, it could also pose problems for the US, especially since it has extensive economic and security partnerships with Caribbean nations. Providing post-storm disaster relief and resilience assistance ahead of the next storm could minimize the risk of those problems.
More concretely, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba are all dealing with coronavirus outbreaks of their own. As the storm approached, officials thought deeply about how to minimize the risk of further outbreaks. For example, Jose Antonio Torres Iribar, the head of the provincial defense council in Havana, Cuba, limited the amount of people who could live in shelters to wait out the storm.
“If under normal circumstances, these shelters could house 500 people, now this number must be reduced for the evacuation process not to become a problem in the context of the pandemic,” he said on Sunday.
In Haiti, however, many had nowhere to go but a shelter. “I’m particularly concerned about Haiti where the devastating floods means more demand for shelters,” Chavez said.
It seems that officials in Louisiana had similar concerns. Normally, impacted citizens would be placed in mega shelters. But worries about increased transmission led the state to reserve over a thousand hotel rooms instead.
“This is very, very different,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said on Wednesday. “We’re going to take advantage of all the space available at hotels and motels that we can contract.”
It’s unclear if Edwards’s team got the idea from precautions taken in the Caribbean, but it’s clear nations in that region led the way on how to safely protect people during Laura and the pandemic.
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