During the extremely active 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season, major Hurricanes Irma and Maria made landfall on several Caribbean territories. CARICOM member and associate-member States were affected by these hurricanes, with Dominica and Barbuda among the more severely impacted islands.
Floods, earthquakes and hurricanes are some of the major natural disasters that affect the region. The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) asserts that “the Caribbean is the second most hazard prone region in the world [and…] recognizes the inextricable linkage between climate change and natural disasters.”
Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Caribbean are particularly susceptible to the aftermath of climate change and extreme weather events, given their size and geographic locations.
From paradise to rubble
The impact of the hurricanes is immense and the effects are drastic. Physically, Dominica and Barbuda have been reduced from their idyllic, reverential image to rubble and devastation. Economically, the widespread damage meant that livelihoods – especially in the tourism sector – and national development came to a halt.
Tourism has contributed significantly towards increasing the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and overall infrastructural development in SIDS. Both were severely affected by the 2017 hurricanes, leaving behind skeletons of their former selves.
Nevertheless, the negative impact of the hurricanes on mental health and well-being is yet to be properly measured. Examining the psychological effects of climate change disasters on survivors is as important as analysing the economic and physical damage caused.
Numbers cannot measure everything
Intangible costs following a natural disaster, such as the psychosocial impacts on survivors, cannot be easily measured or priced. They can be perceived otherwise, however. Some statistics and oral narratives give a glimpse into the dire psychosocial consequences of the recent hurricanes across the region. Scrutinizing such existing data would yield a richer picture of these impacts.
For instance, ACAPS highlighted that 65,000 people or 80% of the population in Dominica were affected by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and, as of 5th December 2017, 35% of households were either living with friends and family or in collective or alternative shelters. Furthermore, at end of October 2017, 17,000 people were estimated to have left the island immediately after the hurricane.
Given these initial statistics, it is therefore of great concern for the sustainability of SIDS to analyse them further, so as to obtain a greater sense of how these outcomes translate at the individual and community levels, specifically as it relates to mental health and well-being.
The intangible impacts
A hurricane can be a very stressful and traumatic event. People may experience short- or long-term effects of a hurricane in a variety of emotional and behavioural symptoms. Some of these include depression, grief, anxiety, anger, phobias, post-traumatic stress and substance abuse.
In relaying her experience eleven months after Hurricane Maria hit, an adult survivor stated that she could “still hear the howling noise of the winds outside [her] house” and that she becomes afraid “every time the sky turn[s] grey.”
In sharing her son’s experience, a parent recalled him asking very fearfully, “Did Irma do that?” when he saw a damaged vehicle in another country unaffected by the hurricane.
The impact of natural disasters not only manifests through the memory of the event; for survivors, social challenges can be a source of psychological trauma. Departure to mainland territories or migration in search of refugee status can easily translate into issues of displacement, group polarization or social cohesion.
Loss of livelihood should be analysed in more than the statistical sense; it should include the psychosocial impact on survivors. In the case of Barbuda, where livelihoods and communities are dependent on subsistence fisheries, the impact of Hurricane Irma on the women and men fisherfolk, their families and communities to their sense of identity, purpose, self-efficacy, mental health and culture ought to be taken into consideration.
Resilience in hurricane affected individuals
While on one hand survivors can succumb to the stresses of hurricanes, on the other, there are individuals and communities who demonstrate great personal growth or resilience.
Measuring and analysing resilience of individuals and communities to extreme weather events can assist decision makers in the development, implementation and promotion of psychological and social safety nets, such as access to Psychological First Aid.
Self-help and resilience have been demonstrated throughout the Caribbean region. In Dominica, Mystellic of “Mystellic Vlogs” has captured vividly the spirit of resilience and group cohesion in his YouTube vlog, “Colihaut People Won’t Let Hurricane Maria Stop Them.”
The resurgence of indigenous systems in the wake of natural disasters reveal resilience as well. One such means is story-telling in the absence of electricity and telecommunications. Initiatives for community collaboration and financial self-help such as ‘gayapa’ and ‘sou sou’ have also resurfaced.
Need for further research in the Caribbean
Much is known about the physical devastation and economic impact of extreme weather events on SIDS. Little, however, is understood about the mental health impact of such disasters. There is a need for more in-depth understanding into how individuals and communities experience and cope in the context of natural disasters, from the angle of negative emotions and behaviours, and positively in the vein of resilience.
Inquiries ought to be made to obtain deeper explanations and a broader understanding about the influence of personality and temperament for survivors of extreme weather events. It is also crucial to investigate the influence of extrinsic factors such as culture and environmental support on the outcomes of survivors.
Furthermore, greater understanding is needed not just in terms of how Caribbean individuals and communities respond to natural disasters, but also how they prepare, mitigate, adapt and recover from them. There is also a need to investigate whether or not these disaster risk management processes are impacted by gender and developmental stages.
Psychological intervention, through the development of research policy, needs to be a pivotal component of Disaster Risk Management Cycle initiatives and programmes. Finding answers to these very important questions through research in a Caribbean context is essential to the sustainability of the region and its people.