By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, Sept 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Rebuilding the Caribbean islands of Dominica and Barbuda, ravaged by hurricanes Irma and Maria, is an opportunity to "build back better" and limit the impact of future disasters, U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Jessica Faieta said.
As Hurricane Irma barreled towards the island, all of the 1,800 residents of Barbuda were evacuated to neighouring Antigua, but the storm destroyed most of its buildings and agriculture.
In Dominica, Category 5 Hurricane Maria made landfall on Sept. 18, claiming the lives of 15 people and affecting most of the small island's population of 73,000 people.
Recovery efforts are now focused on providing aid to people in shelters, restoring power and clearing the debris.
But in the coming weeks as efforts turn to reconstruction, planning and investment must focus on building back better, including constructing homes, police stations and government buildings that can better withstand hurricanes.
"Seeing the devastation, obviously investing in a reconstruction that becomes resilient, of building back better becomes extremely important for the Caribbean," said Faieta, who also heads the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Latin America and the Caribbean.
More frequent and extreme weather linked to climate change like hurricanes and severe flooding will occur more often.
"We are going to see more of these (disasters) ... such weather is going to become the norm rather than the exception," Faieta told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We are seeing a complete new phenomenon and what has been done before is not enough."
She said the UNDP aims to train people, particularly women, on how to repair and rebuild safer homes, including how to build columns, foundations and roofs more resistant to high winds.
"There is an opportunity to rebuild better," she said.
In the case of Barbuda an "island that has to be built from scratch" getting urban planning right is vital to limit the potential of damage of future hurricanes, Faieta said.
This includes building shelters and storage areas for food, water and seeds in safe locations, away from flood-prone areas on high-ground, she said.
Improving early warning systems is also important, she said. This includes providing communities with cellphone technology to tell people where to pre-position food and seeds ahead of a hurricane and mapping flood-plain areas.
In Dominica, a mountainous island, reforestation will be also important to lessen the hazard of landslides triggered by heavy rains.
According to the U.N., Hurricane Maria "totally decimated" Dominica's agriculture sector, and reconstruction could include introducing crops, like palm oil, that are more resistant to high winds.
With reconstruction costs for the Caribbean nations estimated in the billions of dollars, Faieta said their economies - often highly indebted and dependent on tourism, fishing and agriculture - need help in setting up a regional emergency insurance fund to soften the impact of disasters.
"There has to some sort of financing for them," Faieta said. "It's simply not realistic that the domestic resources will cover something like this."
The Barbados-based Caribbean Development Bank has made emergency grants and loans to member countries to help cover immediate costs in the wake of Irma.
Hurricane Irma and other hurricanes this year have also triggered payouts of nearly $51 million from the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF SPC), including a $19 million payment to Dominica last week.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)