Response preparedness is essential as climate change continues to produce more active and devastating Atlantic hurricane seasons. While the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season is unlikely to match the record-setting pace of the 2020 season, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) latest forecast still projects the formation of 15-21 named storms, with 7-10 possibly becoming hurricanes, including 3-5 major hurricanes of category 3 strength or higher on the Saffir-Simpson scale.
The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season produced a remarkable 11 named storms above those projected by NOAA, including an additional 3 hurricanes. The 2020-2021 La Niña event, which largely fueled the record-shattering 2020 season, has now come to an end. However, the possible return of La Niña after August leaves the door open to heightened late season cyclonic activity in the Atlantic basin, as witnessed last year with back-to-back major hurricanes Eta and Iota in November.
Climate change is driving an increase in the frequency and intensity of storms causing devastating impacts in the Caribbean and Central America, wreaking havoc on already fragile livelihoods and undoing years of hard-earned development gains in just a matter of hours. During the 2020 hurricane season, nearly 9.5 million people were affected by storms across Latin America and the Caribbean, including around 1.7 million people displaced by Eta and Iota alone.
In a multi-hazard environment characterized by chronic violence, heightened food insecurity, and unabated displacement and irregular migration, national disaster authorities and the humanitarian community must be ready to respond to multiple simultaneous emergencies whose frequency, intensity and overlapping nature leave affected people all but completely unable to cope and recover from these crises.
OCHA building on lessons learned and stepping up support for the RRM. Based on lessons learned from the 2017, 2019 and 2020 hurricane seasons, OCHA Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean (ROLAC) continues to work closely with the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) to enhance the capacity of the Regional Response Mechanism (RRM).
OCHA’s Humanitarian Advisory Team (HAT) embedded in the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office in Barbados, which covers 10 islands in the Eastern Caribbean, continues to collaborate with CDEMA on the strengthening of joint assessments, coordination and information management to enhance the response capacity of the RRM. The strategic placement of a HAT alongside CDEMA Headquarters in Barbados is helping to implement a joint and coordinated UN strategy in support of CDEMA, while allowing OCHA to provide enhanced technical assistance to the RRM. Building on the positive experience of the response to the eruption of La Soufrière volcano in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, OCHA continues to bolster the capacity of the RRM and, when activated, provide support to the operational cells of CDEMA’s Regional Coordination Centre.
ROLAC aims to strengthen regional response coordination through the 345W online system. To facilitate response coordination, OCHA ROLAC continues to finetune its Who does What, Where, When and for Whom (345W) online platform. The 345W provides the humanitarian community with a common operational platform for the reporting and monitoring of response activities, enabling synergies to be more easily identified across priority sectors to ensure that the support provided to those in need is well-targeted and efficient. In a sudden-onset emergency, it is critical to formulate a common operational picture as quickly as possible, identifying which humanitarian actors are operating on the ground, what activities they are developing, where and when they are being implemented and who they are targeting. These are essential questions that must be answered in order to promote well-coordinated humanitarian action that addresses the differentiated needs of crisis-affected people. The value added of the 345W online system is that it allows humanitarian partners to do just that through one easy-to-use platform, avoiding duplications in reporting and better visualizing the humanitarian community’s response.
COVID-19 access restrictions require greater agility and flexibility harnessed through joint physical and remote response modalities. Since March 2020, governments across the region have implemented physical distancing measures and intermittent lockdowns to curb the spread of COVID-19. In such a dynamic response environment, regional coordination structures and mechanisms must be agile and flexible in order to quickly adapt to changing circumstances, while also relying on and supporting national and local actors.
The humanitarian response to the volcanic eruption in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines highlighted the potential logistics challenges and restrictions on humanitarian access that COVID-19 protocols may pose for response efforts, reinforcing the need to harmonize physical and remote response modalities in order to rapidly adjust and better tailor emergency response activities to the local epidemiological context. As COVID-19-related travel restrictions are constantly changing, ROLAC continues to monitor COVID-19 entry requirements in the Caribbean to keep humanitarian partners informed, allowing them to more easily navigate the logistics challenges faced when physically deploying response personnel. Based on lessons learned from the 2020 hurricane season, ROLAC is in a better position to roll out mixed response modalities in 2021 that harness the strengths of both physical and remote support in order to promote a more flexible and robust humanitarian response.
Localization is a strategy that must be implemented to empower first responders at the national and local level.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a well-targeted and principled humanitarian response is now more than ever dependent on robust in-country response capacities and strong local structures and organizations, including local non-governmental organizations and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. The proximity of local organizations, who are known and trusted by affected communities, to crisis-affected people puts them in a position to rapidly mobilize response personnel and relief assistance even in the face of access restrictions. Meaningfully engaging local actors in preparedness and response efforts will facilitate the delivery of context-appropriate and timely humanitarian assistance, making for a more efficient use of donor funding and facilitating greater collaboration and sustainability of humanitarian and development activities beyond the immediate emergency response. As such, the international community must actively support those on the ground through the provision of technical assistance in assessments and information management, ensuring their inclusion in regional response plans to facilitate access to funding and improving their integration into established coordination structures.
Response plans must integrate activities that support the recovery of local economies and livelihoods. The Caribbean has been rocked by the socioeconomic shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic which brought its tourism-dependent economies to their knees. The pandemic has significantly exacerbated already pronounced inequalities and poverty as joblessness grew rapidly and household income dwindled.
Prior to COVID-19, the population-weighted average poverty rate in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), excluding Haiti, stood at 24 per cent, a figure expected to have increased due to the pandemic’s devasting impact on livelihoods. By February 2021, the socioeconomic ills of the virus had spurred an increase in the number of people estimated to be food-insecure in the English-speaking Caribbean to 2.7 million, an increase of 57 per cent since April 2020.
After a year of dealing with the effects of COVID-19, resource-strapped communities and governments find themselves with limited capacities to respond to and recover from another crisis, leaving already vulnerable populations more exposed to a major storm impact. Given the unprecedent socioeconomic impact of the pandemic, emergency response plans must ensure that humanitarian assistance has a positive multiplier effect on local economies and livelihoods and creates synergies with early recovery and development activities that complement existing multi-sectoral COVID-19 response plans in the region.
Humanitarian access to crisis-affected people must be guaranteed and humanitarian organizations need to take all necessary precautions to reduce COVID-19 health risks. Unhindered humanitarian access to affected States is critical to ensuring that crisis-affected people receive the lifesaving assistance and protection they urgently need. In the context of COVID-19, protocols and procedures must be established at both the national and regional level to facilitate the rapid mobilization of humanitarian personnel and immediate relief supplies to address pressing humanitarian needs in emergency situations. Humanitarian operations must ensure alignment, complementarity and coordination with ongoing national and regional response efforts in the fight against COVID-19. Likewise, humanitarian organizations must assure that COVID-19 prevention measures are integrated into operational planning and response modalities to mitigate the potential health risks for affected populations. While OCHA ROLAC, other UN agencies, funds and programmes and international humanitarian organizations remain prepared to respond to emergencies in the Caribbean, international surge capacity and remote support will largely depend on national policies on the acceptance of international assistance in the context of the pandemic.
Vaccination and protection of both humanitarian personnel and affected people is vital to mitigating health risks and ensuring unrestricted humanitarian access to crisis-affected communities. While the Caribbean has effectively rolled out public health measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccine hesitancy and skepticism stands in the way of the region achieving herd immunity, not only jeopardizing the recovery of its tourism-dependent economies but also generating additional risks during the hurricane season. Targeted communications and public education programmes are required to motivate people to get vaccinated and more equitable access to vaccines is urgently needed. Likewise, humanitarian organizations must ensure the protection of personnel deployed in response to emergencies in order to better protect the affected people they are assisting. Protecting affected communities and humanitarian personnel will be critical to mitigate health risks and to ensure unhindered access for humanitarian actors, enabling them to quickly reach those most in need. Given their proximity and capacity to carry out search-and-rescue activities and deliver immediate relief supplies to disaster-affected communities, we must advocate for vaccine prioritization among local first responders and members of local organizations who will be the first to respond in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.
Special attention is needed on prevention, risk mitigation and response to domestic and gender-based violence.
Since March 2020, mobility restrictions and lockdowns, combined with the increased economic and social stresses brought on by the pandemic, created a perfect storm for the emergence of heighted domestic and gender-based violence in the region as victims were often forced into confinement with their abusers. For women and girls, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the risk of gender-based violence as joblessness among women, who are often dependent on the hard-hit tourism sector and the informal economy to earn their livelihoods, resulted in the loss of their financial independence, a problem compounded by a lack of access to adequate protection services amid the pandemic. In this context, special attention must be paid to effectively mainstreaming gender and protection concerns into humanitarian action, ensuring that the most vulnerable women, girls, men and boys have access to the lifesaving assistance they need, including mental health and psychosocial support as well as sexual and reproductive health services. In practice, this means integrating gender considerations into needs assessments and developing specific actions to mitigate and address existing risks and differentiated needs.
Emergency response operations must be grounded in humanitarian principles to ensure the protection of the most vulnerable, including displaced people, migrants, returnees and indigenous populations. In the Caribbean, major hydrometeorological events can trigger significant internal and intra-regional displacement and exacerbate the existing vulnerabilities of irregular migrants and returnees who are disproportionately affected during emergencies. Amid the pandemic, the livelihoods of migrants and refugees in the Caribbean, especially those of Cuban, Haitian and Venezuelan descent, have been hit hard, significantly reducing their capacity to meet their basic needs and forcing many to resort to negative coping mechanisms. In 2021, a major hurricane impact in a migrant-receiving country could greatly worsen humanitarian needs and protection risks, with threats of deportation often driving many irregular migrants into hiding and out of reach of humanitarian assistance during emergencies, as witnessed among Haitian communities in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian in The Bahamas in 2019. As such, integrating the potential needs of these vulnerable groups into contingency and operational planning processes will be crucial to mitigate the adverse impacts of storm-induced disasters which could compound existing humanitarian and protection needs. Accordingly, OCHA ROLAC is using the Data Entry and Exploratory Platform (DEEP) to facilitate the development of a regional humanitarian profile of high-risk migrants to better identify the location and potential needs of these vulnerable groups.
Indigenous communities constitute another vulnerable group whose existing risks and vulnerabilities are only amplified in times of crisis. Identifying the differentiated needs of these groups, and tailoring response efforts to them, is a key strategy to ensure humanitarian action is taking into account those being left behind.