Earliest Ever Hurricane Tears Through Caribbean, Highlighting Need for Speedier Climate Action
Fishing vessels at the Bridgetown Fisheries Complex in Barbados damaged by Hurricane Beryl.

Hurricane Beryl, which has destroyed homes and infrastructure in large parts of the eastern Caribbean, is the first first-ever Category 4 hurricane recorded in the region in June – and a portend of devastating changes in weather patterns.

It also underscores the need for urgent international assistance to Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to strengthen early warning systems and the climate resilience of key infrastructure – notably water, sanitation and health services, according to experts.

The hurricane reached peak speed of 265 km per hour at times as it whipped though Barbados, Grenada, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Haiti, northern Venezuela, the Dominician Republic, Cayman Islands, and Jamaica.

“The storm first impacted Barbados, causing severe damage to the south coast and significantly affecting the fishing industry with over 200 fishing vessels damaged or destroyed,” according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

On Union Island, part of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, 90% of infrastructure has been damaged, including houses, roads and the airport. 

Some 95% of homes in Grenada’s Carriacou and Petite Martinique islands, are damaged, and around 3,000 people are shelters, the IFRC added.

Parts of Jamaica’s St Elizabeth region in the south east were also devastated, with around 1,000 people taking refuge in shelters. The Dominican Republic, Cayman Islands reported damage. 

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro said that 8,000 houses had been destroyed, according to Reuters.

More to still come?

“Hurricane Beryl, the first hurricane of the 2024 Atlantic hurricane season, rapidly strengthened to a Category 5 storm unusually early in the year,” according to a report from the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is part of the US Department of Commerce 

“This explosive strengthening was fuelled in part by exceptionally warm ocean temperatures. That heat was one of the factors behind NOAA’s prediction in May of an 85% chance that the 2024 Atlantic hurricane season would be above normal.”

Sea surface temperatures were close to those usually found in mid-September, the peak of hurricane season, added NOAA.

In late May, NOAA weather forecasters predicted an 85% chance of above-normal hurricane for the 2024 Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from 1 June 1 to 30 November.

It also forecast eight  to 13 hurricanes, with four to seven likely to be “major” hurricanes (winds of over 178km per hour) in coming months.

Early warning systems 

“The unprecedented hurricane demonstrates the importance of effective multi-hazard early warning systems to save lives,” according to United Nations Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR).

“Globally, the sustained investments in those systems are making progress in reducing the loss of life in disasters. But economic losses are escalating. Every year millions of households lose their livelihood and risk being pushed into poverty. Ensuring that infrastructure is resilient and that communities ‘build back better’ in the face of future hazards is essential,” added UNDRR.

Damage sustained to the airport and surrounding areas on Union Island in the Grenadines during Hurricane Beryl.

In late May, the Fourth International Conference on SIDS adopted the Antigua and Barbuda Agenda for SIDS, a 10-year development agenda that  appeals for international assistance to address climate change.

The Agenda notes that “SIDS are facing the unrelenting and compounding impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, disasters and natural hazards, health and other social related challenges and economic vulnerabilities.”

Key climate change challenges include “erratic precipitation, increasingly frequent and extreme weather phenomena, more frequent and severe tropical cyclones, floods and drought, diminishing fresh water resources, desertification, coastal erosion, land degradation and sea-level rise.”

However, there has been a “progressive deterioration” in SIDS’ ability to “withstand external shocks and enhance their resilience” – largely as a result of the economic impact of COVID-19 and climate challenges.

Financial reform to build resilience 

Protestors call on wealth countries to pay for climate-related loss and damage at COP27.

“In the wake of Hurricane Beryl, it is clear that we must redouble our efforts to build resilience and preparedness in the face of growing disaster risk, especially for small island developing states, which have contributed the least to the climate crisis but suffer the greatest costs,” said UNDRR head Kamal Kishore.

Kishore appealed for international support for the Antigua and Barbuda Agenda, which “integrates disaster risk reduction as central to climate change adaptation and sustainable development in SIDS with clear calls to action on enhancing multi-hazard early warning systems and resilient infrastructure.”

There have also been numerous calls for reform of the international financial architecture to assist developing countries most affected by climate change who are being forced to borrow money to address climate crises largely caused by wealthy nations. 

The most significant of these is the 2022 Bridgetown Initiative, spearheaded by Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados. This called for key actions including new loan mechanisms, reform of the world’s development banks, and a loss and damages fund to enable developing countries to access to resilient finance to address climate and development crises.

The UN climate change conference, COP27, agreed to establish a loss and damage fund during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) in 2022. However, there is resistance from a number of wealthier countries to this as the world continues to experience record-breaking extreme weather events.

Meanwhile, the International Cort of Justice (ICJ) is expected to hold public hearings and issue an advisory later this year on the international legal obligations countries have to safeguard people against climate change. 

This follows the adoption last year of a landmark UN resolution to seek such an advisory opinion from the ICJ. While not legally binding, the advisory opinion holds legal and moral weight and will spotlight the human rights impacts of climate policy.

Image Credits: UNDP, AfricaNews.

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