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Weathering the storm: powerful lessons from the Caribbean

From UN Environment

Florence, Joyce, Mangkhut and Olivia. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, raging tropical storms continue to threaten the wellbeing of millions around the world.

The death and destruction caused by tropical storms are a stark reminder of coastal communities’ vulnerability to natural hazards and of the need to draw lessons from such events to minimize their impact both on people and the environment. In the Atlantic Ocean alone, an average of ten named tropical storms form every year, 6 become hurricanes and between 2 and 3 become major hurricanes, with winds exceeding 178 km/h.

In October 2016, Hurricane Matthew struck the Caribbean country of Haiti with winds at over 240 km/h, killing 546 people, destroying nearly 200,000 homes, schools and hospitals, and leaving 1.4 million people in need of humanitarian aid. Hurricane Matthew was responsible for the worst humanitarian crisis in the country since the 2010 earthquake. To this day, in the country’s Sud Department where Hurricane Matthew made landfall, people are struggling to rebuild their livelihoods, as most productive assets such as crops and livestock were wiped out by the storm.

The country, whose territory occupies nearly 28,000 square kilometres, is one of the most vulnerable to natural disasters including hurricanes, floods and earthquakes. The Global Climate Risk Index 2018, published by Germanwatch, identified Haiti as the country that is most affected by the impacts of weather-related events in the world just ahead of Zimbabwe and Fiji.

Among the enterprises hardest hit by the storm was the Coteaux Electricity Co-operative (CEAC) which was established with the support of Norway and UN Environment in 2015. Situated in Coteaux, in the Sud Department, the firm plays a crucial role in the generation and distribution of provision power to more than 1,000 consumers in three areas:  Roche-à-Bateau, Coteaux and Port-à-Piment.

While solar photovoltaic systems can provide lower-cost energy, and are more reliable than imported fuels, they are not foolproof in the face of major natural disasters. The CEAC solar-diesel hybrid power plant was badly damaged by the hurricane leading to a loss of nearly 70 per cent of its energy generation capacity.

There had been two main contributors to the loss: a failure in the fitting of the plant’s racking system and damage from flying debris, including ripped out loose panels.

Consequently, a range of technical and operational functions were implemented by UN Environment for its rebuild. These included changes in the photovoltaic racking systems, an increase in racking density and larger concrete footings. The engineers also used lower profile racks to reduce wind lift from under the panels and constructed on-site storage of plywood panels for rapid deployment in the event of a hurricane warning.

“The cooperative’s 42 km distribution network were also badly damaged by the hurricane so we’re rebuilding it. While the design was generally okay, selected areas and poles will be reinforced and inter-pole spacing will be reduced for better wind resistance,” said Andrew Morton, UN Environment’s Energy and Engineering Programme Manager.

“The lessons learned from 2016 and 2017 are also being integrated into other projects, such as the technical assistance being provided to the Government of Antigua and Barbuda. The government is integrating hurricane resilience into its larger plans for both climate change adaptation and as a transition towards energy independence through solar and wind power,” said Morton.

UN Environment, which has been active in Haiti since 2008, is working to respond to natural disasters, industrial accidents and human-induced crisis by supporting dozens of countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and South Sudan.

Since the start of this century, the world has experienced more than 2,500 disasters and 40 major conflicts which have affected more than two billion people. The casualties arising from the most recent storms Mangkhut and Florence are yet another reminder of governments, businesses and communities to integrate disaster-risk reduction and to promote environmental cooperation to minimize the harmful effects of environmental degradation on human well-being.

Learn more about UN Environment’s work the environmental causes and consequences of disasters and conflicts.


Just hours after Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti, NASA’s Terra satellite acquired this natural-color image. At the time, Matthew had top sustained winds of about 230 kilometers (145 miles) per hour. Photo by NASA
An electric company worker fixes a power line affected by Hurricane Matthew on the outskirts of Les Cayes, Haiti. Photo by REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares


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