Skip Navigation

Prepare for the Worst: Rebuilding Caribbean Schools after Hurricanes

Image by Rosalia Mejia

Education perils in unexpected emergencies. After the last eighteen months under a global pandemic, seemingly every nation has come to that inescapable conclusion. As wealthy countries take stock of the flaws exposed in their education systems, it’s worth taking a look at other major disruptions to schools elsewhere in the world. Major hurricanes, by far the world’s most costly natural disasters, threaten to entirely upend education by destroying schools, displacing students, and directing funding and resources elsewhere. It follows, then, that countries with fewer resources, less established systems, and greater hurricane risk will be ground zero for educational disruption over the coming decades. 

In the Atlantic basin, no region understands the catastrophic impacts of hurricanes on education quite like the Caribbean. Immediately after Hurricane Matthew in 2016, nearly half a million students in Haiti were unable to attend school. The same storm impacted over 667 educational centers across Cuba. In Barbuda, where Hurricane Irma in 2017 damaged more than 95 percent of buildings, students weren’t able to return to temporary classrooms for months after landfall.

As we are learning from Covid-19, short-term educational disruptions have long-term implications. Over the last three decades, lost school days due to hurricanes have significantly lowered student test scores, especially on smaller islands. After Matthew, student absenteeism increased to 46 percent in rural Haiti. And following 2017’s Irma and Maria, students and teachers from the Virgin Islands who had to relocate were more likely to experience PTSD

The Caribbean’s hurricane-induced educational problems are colossal and, most likely, worsening. Mexico and the United States are the only countries in Western Hemisphere that face more hurricanes than Cuba and Haiti. But, the two North American economies are respectively more than 20-times larger than those of the island nations. As a result, most Caribbean nations have significantly less funding available for recovery than Mexico or the United States do, especially with other costly rebuilding efforts. Moreover, the impact of climate change is almost certain to exacerbate the impacts of these storms. Given the long-standing economic and educational challenges that Caribbean island nations face, it may seem daunting to imagine substantial solutions without earth-shatteringly large policy interventions. Nonetheless, there are a variety of policy interventions and practices that Caribbean island nations can adopt to significantly reduce the negative impacts of hurricanes on education.

Foremost, it’s important to acknowledge the meteorological and geographic features that put the Caribbean at a unique risk from hurricanes. Most Caribbean island nations are much smaller in landmass than their high-risk counterparts on the mainland. This simple distinction has enormous implications for hurricane impacts. Average elevation in hurricane-prone Central and North America is also consistently higher than average elevation on Caribbean islands. Most importantly, rising ocean temperatures increase the likelihood of rapid intensification, which is one of the least understood aspects of hurricane forecasting, which substantially increases track uncertainty. 

Imagine a hurricane that undergoes sudden rapid intensification three days out from landfall, resulting in a 100-mile shift in its track. Such a hurricane heading towards Louisiana might wreak havoc anywhere from New Orleans to Lake Charles. Yet, as part of the United States, affected communities could rely on resources from a vast and expansive nation. On the other hand, a shift like that for 62-square mile Barbuda might demarcate light rain or absolute destruction for the entire island. And from the perspective of a student, it’s the difference between a normal school day and the catastrophe of a lifetime. With a risky portion of hurricane season still ahead, focus is now on what Caribbean nations, under their current government and education system, can do to prepare for the worst. 

Antigua and Barbuda’s response to Irma exemplifies effective practices other nations can employ going forward. After the Category 5 storm impacted close to 95 percent of structures on Barbuda, the island’s 235 school-children were integrated into schools on Antigua. The government instituted new building codes as Barbuda rebuilt, and many homeowners opted to build concrete “safe rooms” to protect themselves from future storms. As recovery efforts proceeded, students shifted back to education on Barbuda, housed in a church as the elementary school underwent repairs. Within a year of near-complete destruction, 100 of Barbuda’s students had returned to school on the island, with the principal stressing that “every day since we restarted we’ve seen more children turning up.”

The strategy is threefold: actively resituate education, build back carefully, and embrace community partnership. Furthermore, the model is readily adaptable for other Caribbean nations to implement. While larger nations like Haiti or Cuba can create cross-island partnerships to resituate students in the hardest-hit areas, smaller islands in the Lesser Antilles should focus on developing relationships with nearby nations that have culturally similar education systems. Nations can then create mutually-beneficial educational contingency plans so that students have somewhere to go when disaster strikes. School communities must nourish similar partnerships on the local level with churches and other private facilities that may sustain less damage during a hurricane than a school. National governments of all forms can help communities develop these relationships by offering tax deductions for compliant organizations and establishing a national office to help schools find willing partners. Building safer, stronger housing across the Caribbean requires a more expansive conversation, but governments can still gradually change building codes after hurricanes. More importantly, municipal governments should tinker with material and structural regulations on a case by case basis, with careful consideration for domestic supply and consumer affordability. 

Such a plan is not without barriers, though. After Matthew, when more than 700 schools in Haiti were damaged, at least 86 more were repurposed as shelters for over a month after the storm. As nations try to recover after storms, decommissioning schools to meet other humanitarian needs substantially compounds this problem of rebuilding education. In addition to the food, water, and shelter they provide, international and domestic recovery efforts must target funding to release schools from downstream storm impacts. Doing so will best enable governments to prioritize the continuity of education and substantially alleviate the long-term harm placed on students.

Therein lies the most important guiding principle: Educational recovery must seek to contain other storm impacts and focus foremost on students’ access to quality schools. There are a range of successful interventions accessible to nations to rebuild, but such responses are pointless if other policies hamper the education system. When disaster strikes, all forces for recovery must collaborate to enable nations to revive their schools and, ultimately, build more resilient education systems. 

While these short- and medium-term fixes are a start, some may wonder whether it’s worth substantially changing education systems going forwards. Wholesale reimagination of a nation’s educational system will require careful consideration of the broader issues presented by colonial pasts and the overall sea-rise impacts of global warming. Yet, those abstract conversations point towards the same central ideal presented by Antigua and Barbuda’s immediate recovery interventions. In the long run, after catastrophe, Caribbean nations and countries around the world must aim to build societies where education, a human right and necessity, can persevere and thrive.