LAST September two category-five hurricanes battered the Caribbean. First came Irma, which hit a cluster of islands in the region’s north-east and then Florida. Maria arrived two weeks later, hammering Dominica, an island state with a population of 74,000, on September 18th, and Puerto Rico two days later. Between them, the hurricanes caused colossal damage. In Puerto Rico alone, more than 3,000 people may have died in the six months since Maria struck.
In Dominica, Maria killed 65 people during the storm and its immediate aftermath. It damaged nearly every building, and destroyed a quarter of them. The house occupied by the prime minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, lost its roof. Maria felled the rainforest and knocked out the electricity, telecoms and water supplies. Landslides and fallen trees blocked roads.
There are now signs of recovery. Roads are clear, the mountainsides are green again and Roseau, the capital, is bustling. Most Dominicans replaced the blue tarpaulins that covered their houses after the storm with permanent roofs. Reconstruction should help the economy. The IMF expects GDP to shrink by 16% this year but to grow by 12% in 2019.
But normality has not returned. Much of the island has no electricity. Telephone land lines work only in Roseau and Portsmouth, the second-largest city. Although the hills are green again, the new growth is mainly vines around the skeletons of trees. After Hurricane David struck in 1979, it took woods two decades to recover.
This time, Dominica intends to become the world’s “first climate-resilient nation”. A “climate-resilient execution agency” is leading the rebuilding. Overseas donors have pledged $400m to it. But hurricanes are not the only disasters the island faces. It has nine potentially active volcanoes, including Morne Canot, which overlooks Roseau. Like the rest of the Caribbean, Dominica is vulnerable to earthquakes. Homeowners have secured houses against hurricanes by putting up concrete roofs, but these can be deadly in earthquakes.
Some people have given up on the disaster-prone island. Several thousand people have moved away. Pensioners from the Windrush generation, who moved to Britain in the 1950s and then returned to Dominica, have now gone back to Britain.
Dominica has lost the Ross University School of Medicine, an American-owned medical school, which brought 1,650 students to Portsmouth. This is a big blow. Ross was the main institution in a private-university sector that accounted for around 8% of GDP, perhaps double that counting the services the students used. After Maria, Ross’s students moved to a cruise ship moored off St Kitts and to Tennessee. In August the university announced that its new home would be Barbados, which has better air links and plusher facilities.
This leaves Dominica with a narrowly based economy. Banana exports, which brought in a third of foreign earnings a generation ago, dwindled to nothing since 2008, when the EU ended privileged access to its market. Dominica’s main manufacturing plant, which made soap and toothpaste, closed after Tropical Storm Erika struck three years ago. With few white-sand beaches, Dominica does not attract many tourists apart from nature lovers and cruise-ship passengers. Mr Skerritt, the world’s youngest head of government when he took office in 2004 at the age of 31, wants to build an international airport.
The money pledged by foreign governments for reconstruction has been slow to arrive. Unlike most other victims of Irma and Maria, Dominica does not have formal political links to a richer country. It has so far paid for the work mainly from the sale of passports to foreigners. A Dominican passport offers visa-free travel to 136 countries, including Britain and Europe’s Schengen area. The government charges $100,000 or more to people from countries whose passports are less widely welcomed. Proceeds from the “citizenship by investment” scheme account for half the government’s revenue. They have paid for job-creation schemes and the construction of three hotels in Portsmouth. But Schengen-area countries could crack down on countries that try to game their visa systems by selling passports. Not all the disasters that Dominica faces are natural ones.