In the ruins of his hurricane-ravaged nation, Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit sees the homes that have to be razed, the hospital and clinics that collapsed and the power lines that failed.
But amid the overwhelming destruction wrought by a powerful Hurricane Maria last month, Skerrit also sees opportunity. On Sunday, as U.N. Secretary General António Guterres wrapped up a 24-hour visit here and to Antigua and Barbuda, Skerrit presented a bold rebuilding plan for a tiny country that today can barely provide food and water for its people but wants to be a model for the Caribbean.
He wants to transform Dominica, he said, into the “world’s first climate-resistant nation in the climate change era.” And he wants the United Nations — and Guterres — at his side on the front lines.
“Our devastation is so complete that our recovery has to be total,” Skerrit said. “We have a unique opportunity to be an example to the world, an example of how an entire nation rebounds from disaster and how an entire nation can be climate resilient for the future.
“We did not choose this opportunity. We did not wish it,” he added. “Having had it thrust upon us, we have chosen actively and decisively to be that example to the world.”
The plan, which began in 2015 after Tropical Storm Erika’s floods and mudslides left the island with a $482 million reconstruction bill, calls for more renewable energy and less fossil fuels, hospitals and clinics that won’t become paralyzed by power outages, infrastructure built around the environment and crops capable of withstanding today’s climate swings.
“The intensity of hurricanes are increasing and we need to ensure we can build better, resilient infrastructure,” said Skerrit, who arrived in Washington on Monday ahead of a World Bank and International Monetary Fund meeting this week to press his case for assistance. “We’re going to need significant sums of resources.”
But if almost half a billion dollars was required to rebuild after Erika, Maria’s damage — coupled with the push to climate-proof the new construction — will likely cost many times that amount. Skerrit said his government has invited several independent agencies to assess how much money Dominica will need. Similar economic studies are also being conducted on hurricane-struck Barbuda — which Guterres toured on foot — along with the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla and the Turks and Caicos.
“The intensity of hurricanes and multiplication of hurricanes in the Caribbean in this season is not an accident,” Guterres stressed during his visit. “It is the result of climate change.”
Stephen O’Malley, the U.N. resident coordinator for Barbados and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, said he estimates the recovery costs will total about $1 billion for the hurricane-struck eastern Caribbean, but the final report will give a better idea of what island nations are up against. And that doesn’t include rebuilding to climate-resistant standards.
Guterres welcomed Skerrit’s vision, which dovetails with that of Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne, who announced that he, too, plans to transform Barbuda into a green, climate-resilient island. But Guterres added that the Caribbean leaders cannot rebuild their islands, much less make them more climate resilient, on their own. They will need the help of the international community, he said, through low-interest loans and new kinds of financing.
“This is going to be a battle,” Guterres told the Miami Herald, of the push to get the international community to do more to support the islands in their climate-resilient reconstruction bid. “It’s going to require thinking out of the box.”
While no country can be completely impervious to climate change, Guterres said, changes can help, such as new construction standards and farming techniques to resist drought and deluge.
The discussion among top Caribbean leaders contrasts with their closest neighbors in the United States. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott has avoided taking a position on climate change and on Monday, the Trump administration announced it plans to repeal former President Barack Obama’s signature policy to curb greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.
But in the Caribbean, leaders don’t need convincing about the devastating effects of warmer temperatures and rising sea levels. Skerrit and Browne, whose countries were hammered by two Category 5 storms within 12 days, are convinced that a changed planet is going to require new tactics for life in paradise. And they have found a champion in Guterres.
“We need to preserve our paradises. We need to make climate protection our top priority,” the U.N. chief said. “The link between climate change and the devastation is real and there is a collective responsibility by the international community to stop this suicidal event.”
A believer in the fight to combat climate change — long before 147 countries in Paris agreed to reduce greenhouse gases and help poor countries adapt — Guterres’ drive to address the issue is a personal one, coming from his own experience.
He learned from scientific contacts and research while organizing university seminars on innovation and sustainable development in his native Portugal, where he also served as the country’s prime minister. From his engineering background, he gleaned an understanding of how building a dam in Portugal to combat forecasts of five years of drought helps stave off a crisis.
And his former role as the UN’s high commissioner for refugees has helped, too, when he had to respond to a wave of African farmers from the Sahel region fleeing to Europe because of changing weather patterns.
“Before, there were droughts every 10 years, then every five years. Now every two years there is a drought … more people are being forced to move,” he said. “Climate change will be one of the main drivers of displacement in the world.”
As he flew over parts of Dominica Sunday aboard a World Food Program flight, Guterres was shocked by the level of “systematic devastation” blanketing the country.
“Not a single leaf,” he said, looking at the trees below that had been stripped down to sticks.
The pride of nature preservationists, Dominica has been known as Nature’s Island. The rainforest is devoid of life, its colorful parrots and wildlife scattered, and the lush green mountains have turned brown. Twenty-six are confirmed dead and 31 are missing, Skerrit said.
“I have never seen anywhere else in the world a forest completely decimated without a single leaf on any tree,” Guterres said. Though he had witnessed the devastation in Barbuda, that island is linked to a bigger one, Antigua, which can support it. In Dominica, an entire nation was flattened.
Guterres and Skerrit visited Salybia, a farming village in the Kalinago territory, where descendants of the island’s indigenous population, formerly known as Caribs, live. Aid packets of rice, tuna, lentils, flour and salt were being distributed by U.N. humanitarian agencies in cooperation with the government and local authorities. Nearby, wood and chunks of concrete from destroyed homes littered the land.
Kalinago Chief Charles Williams welcomed him, telling the crowd that while Maria was a natural disaster, it was God’s will.
But Guterres offered those gathered a different viewpoint. “These disasters, they are largely due not to God’s will but to what the people on the planet are doing. … The people on this planet have not been taking care of this planet and especially the developed world.”
Guterres said he knows that there are non-believers when it comes to climate change. But even though President Donald Trump seems intent on having the U.S. exit the Paris climate accord and Monday’s decision will make it difficult for the U.S. to curb emissions, Guterres said he remains hopeful.
“There is a strong commitment of the American society to make sure that the engagement the U.S. assumed in Paris will be met,” he said. “And this gives me a lot of optimism. It’s one thing what the government decides, but it’s another thing what a society will do.”
Seeing the devastation of Irma and Maria up close only reinforced his feelings.
“It confirms everything I felt,” he said, as the plane approached Guadeloupe. “When you see this level of destruction, you feel a huge sense of solidarity with these people. They do not contribute to climate change, but they are the first victims of climate change. It’s a moral responsibility that is very, very important for me. I feel reassured that I am doing the right thing.”