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Skerrit: At the mercy of the international community

Dominica’s prime minister on the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria, climate change and rebuilding for the future.

As hurricane season ripped through the Caribbean in one of the worst recorded episodes of the weather phenomenon, the people of Dominica, the “nature island of the Caribbean”, braced for the impact of Hurricane Maria. 

The small, island nation of 73,000 people in the Caribbean Sea was destroyed.

Dominica is a small peaceful island with no military to speak of, an economy once built on banana exports and now building an ecotourism industry … the damage remains unspeakable.

People were reported missing and others had died in the night. The eye of Hurricane Maria made a direct hit as a Category 5 hurricane – the most powerful category of storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale – and ripped apart anything in its path.

The entire country was left without electricity, water, or phone service. There was no way to contact the outside world. Or the world to reach anybody inside.

Dominica went dark for 48 hours and the outside world was unaware of the situation on the island. However, as the sun came up, the scale of the destruction was evident.

The nation of Dominica will need to be entirely rebuilt.

We don't have money. We are a developing country. We have very limited capacity, if any, to borrow. We cannot borrow at commercial rates. We need international help. We are absolutely at the mercy of the international community.

by Roosevelt Skerrit, prime minister of the island of Dominica

Leading the recovery efforts is Dominica’s prime minister, and the world’s youngest head of state, Roosevelt Skerrit. Skerrit took office in 2004, and today he faces the biggest challenge of his career: how to rebuild a country in ruins. 

We speak to him about what it was like to live through the hurricane, the challenges in rebuilding, and the risk of climate change on poor island nations like Dominica.

Describing the damage caused by the hurricane as he wandered the streets the day after the storm had passed, Skerrit tells Al Jazeera he knew there was a lot of work to be done, especially after the roof had been blown off his home in the night.

“From the time we were able to go out and I saw the destruction in the neighbourhood where I lived, because these were houses that were built pretty strongly, most of them recognising and respecting the construction code … every home, every house was impacted by the hurricane. Every tree, down. Power lines were down. Telephone lines were down. My mind started racing about other communities that were vulnerable … I thought, if this area suffered this much destruction, then we have complete national devastation.”

Rebuilding is going to prove a challenge for Skerrit and his people. With the levels of damage further enhanced by poor morale, even hunger and lack of resources, the PM is exhausting all possible options to try and help his island nation. 

“We’ve invited the World Bank to come in and do a rapid assessment … we will rely on them to advise us and the international community on the precise cost of reconstructing the country. You’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to build homes, to build schools, to build hospitals, to build infrastructure. Several of our bridges were washed away.” 

Skerrit also highlights the role climate change plays in the increasing turbulence in weather patterns that the Caribbean – and the world at large – is facing. For him, unlike many nations across the world still doubting its validity, climate change is a certainty as opposed to a theory – and the effects are very real.

“We have now sat the exams. This is a practical situation [not a theoretical one]. Look at the streets, look at our culture. How are we going to survive the next few months, the next few years … this is our life, these are our livelihoods.”

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