“Dominica has been brutalised by the hurricane. Please let the world know. We need help!” Janet Charles, Acting High Commissioner for Dominica to the UK

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A road in the Roseau area, Dominica, is littered with debris, uprooted vegetation, and felled poles and power lines from Hurricane Maria. By Roosevelt Skerrit, CC0.

Three hurricanes into a season of unrelenting tempests, Maria has now swept across the Caribbean – following quickly on the heels of Irma and Harvey—giving responders no rest, and leaving behind yet another terrific scene of suffering and destruction.

As a veteran of many disaster response and recovery missions across the globe and in the U.S., I am anxious about the recent sweep of hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, and flash flooding. These devastating events are now layered upon the already critical set of unmet needs that have built up from slower-onset disasters like famine, drought, displacement, war, and the crisis facing the Rohinga in Myanmar. Great swaths of the world’s geography are being swept up in pain, chaos, and apocalyptic conditions.

The history of hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean, in particular, is characterized by unrelenting brutality, inequality, and extreme vulnerability, and the poorest residents of these island nations should greatly concern us all. After Irma, we heard tales of unrest on St. Martin as water and food scarcity took a toll on the local population.

Hurricane Irma devastated St. Martin, courtesy Ministry of Defense, Netherlands
Hurricane Irma devastated St. Martin, courtesy Ministry of Defense, Netherlands

In relation to Maria, the news from Dominica, Guadeloupe, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Croix, and Puerto Rico, is deafening – in its silence. Power and communications have all been lost and it will be some time before the rest of the world learns of the full scope of damage and destruction on these islands. Predictions of devastation prior to landfall gave us all an inkling of what to expect and we are now receiving images of survivors stumbling through scarred landscapes staring at what is, while remembering what once was.

As stories of devastation take shape, I encourage us all to follow the money and think carefully about where resources are most needed. Great Britain, for example, has expressed dismay due to OECD rules that prevent it from using its considerable international aid budget to help in the British Virgin Islands, as the national income of the UK’s three dependent Caribbean territories have been deemed too high to qualify for official development assistance. The distribution of post-hurricane assistance has historically disadvantaged native islanders, and this legacy looks sure to repeat itself as colonial legacies play themselves out.

Philanthropy offers more than a source of badly needed funds when people face impossible odds. Savvy donors know their institutions can shine a light on inequality, injustice, and the plight of those the media will not stay around to cover. The philanthropic sector must also give a voice to those least able to raise their own through advocacy.

Disaster worn survivors and practitioners need you to highlight their struggles, and share lessons learned and best practices with them. When the media switches their attention back to different matters, we must remain steadfast in our commitment and stand up for the vulnerable and forgotten of Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Their stories shall be told, and their needs will not be ignored.