This is the first in a four-part series about the larger structural issues facing the Virgin Islands, with the aim of spurring more public conversation and mobilizing the community around agreed solutions.
Islands have particular characteristics, such as small size and isolation, that limit their development options, and those options are further constrained by the disruptions from natural phenomena and human activities.
The term “Resilient Islands” encapsulates what it means to maintain economic, social and ecological sustainability in the face of the increasing vulnerability of islands.
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the term V.I. Strong was coined in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. The term became a rallying cry that was used in different ways; merchandising, appeals for donation, mobilizing community action and creation of a “U.S. Virgin Islands Storm-Strong Program.” The storm-strong program was intended to be a “community-based, hurricane-hazard preparedness program.” Resilience became a widely used term, attached to any and every initiative, usually with no assessment of how the particular initiative makes the U.S. Virgin Islands more resilient.
What does strong or resilient actually means for the U.S. Virgin Islands as disruption becomes the norm for the territory and its neighbors, particularly when our nearest neighbors (the British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico) are directly linked to our economy and support systems?
The U.S. Virgin Islands has experienced multiple extreme events in a single year that resulted in disaster declarations. For example, in 2010, major disasters were declared in September (impact from Hurricane Earl), early November (flooding, mudslides and landslides associated with Tropical Storm Otto in October) and late November (flooding, rockslides and mudslides associated with Tropical Storm Tomas). In 2015, in response to a crippling drought, St. Croix was declared a natural disaster area in August. By the end of the month, Tropical Storm Erika caused flooding throughout the territory. In September 2017, hurricanes Irma and Maria made landfall in the territory, resulting in loss of life and billions of dollars in damage. 2019 brought drought and Hurricane Dorian. 2020 brought the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 hurricane season has not yet officially started.
The British Virgin Islands suffered damage from flooding associated with a tropical wave on August 7, 2017 only to be impacted by hurricanes Irma and Maria in September of the same year. Fast track to 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Puerto Rico is similarly in a state of constant disruption. While contending with what has been described as an economic disaster, the territory was devastated by hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017. 2020 brought earthquakes in January, immediately followed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Puerto Rico also functions as the administrative and technical support hub for many firms doing business in the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as the coordinating center for many federal agencies and programs in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The new normal for the U.S. Virgin Islands is not sometime in the future. It arrived in 2017 when the devastation by two category 5 hurricanes acted as a punctuation to the old normal, which was characterized by: Difficulty meeting public sector financial obligations; inability of the government to raise capital on the open market; deteriorating infrastructure; a fragile and shrinking economy; and an aging population challenged by high levels of non-communicable diseases and poverty.
Any uncertainty regarding the future of the U.S. Virgin Islands is in the details and our ability to cope. The larger picture is fairly clear. The future is the current normal is one of frequent disruption.
What does it mean to be strong or resilient in the face of constant disruption?
As the territory attempts to answer that question, one thing is clear: The old model of development, which generated or maintained many of the structural constraints and systemic risks, cannot be the path forward if the community is to remain intact, much less thrive.
Economic relief from the U.S. government after major natural or economic disasters is likely to become uncertain in the future. Information from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Centers for Environmental Information shows an increase in the number of billion-dollar weather and climate disasters impacting the nation, with 2019 being the fifth consecutive year with 10 or more such disasters.
Recent experiences suggest that financial aid is not guaranteed, not necessarily rapid and if received, may be bounded by conditions the territory can’t meet. That means ending policies and practices that reduce the economic stability and increases the vulnerability of the territory.
Navigating the new normal of constant disruption will require individuals that are knowledgeable and capable. It will require institutions and processes that are adaptable, focused on risk reduction and able to facilitate the transition from the old economic and social development models and strategies to one of regeneration.
Most importantly, the new normal will force the USVI to function as a cohesive community if it intends to survive and thrive.
Lloyd Gardner is an environmental planning consultant, the principal of Environmental Support Services, LLC and president of the nonprofit, Foundation for Development Planning, Inc. He has been involved in environmental management in the Caribbean since joining the Government of Jamaica in 1982. Since joining the private sector as an environmental planning consultant in 1992, Gardner has provided consulting services to a wide range of regional and international private, intergovernmental, civil society, bilateral and multilateral organizations.