By Matt Winslow
January 10, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
As images fill our news feeds of homes that have been leveled and Americans who are forced to sleep outside following the 6.4-magnitude earthquake in Puerto Rico, we’re once again reminded of the tremendous cost of natural disasters. Much like when Hurricane Maria hit the island in 2017, Puerto Rico’s residents are once again asking themselves how they’ll rebuild their homes, their infrastructure and their lives.
This is a challenge facing at-risk communities across the globe and, whether it’s from earthquakes or climate change-driven hurricanes, we must break this never-ending cycle of destruction and reconstruction.
Four months ago, after Hurricane Dorian laid waste to the Bahamas-Abaco region, I joined with local community leaders on the island of Elbow Cay to launch a new organization called Hope Town United. Using Hope Town, Elbow Cay’s main settlement, as a pilot, we are working to develop sustainable innovations and scalable financial tools that will create a blueprint for communities to rebuild in a more resilient way so they’re better prepared for the natural disasters of tomorrow.
Much like Puerto Rico ahead of Hurricane Maria, we never could have been prepared for Dorian.
After the most powerful hurricane that’s ever hit the Bahamas made landfall, the damage was unprecedented. Across this small island, residents took cover as best they could while Hurricane Dorian unleashed sustained winds of 185 miles per hour and flooded the community over the course of 36 hours.
When the floodwaters receded and survivors came out of their shelters, this once idyllic community began coming to grips with the overwhelming carnage. Dorian damaged or destroyed more than 70 percent of the island’s buildings, including the school and medical clinic, and it wiped out nearly all of the island’s infrastructure.
We know that rebuilding the old way isn’t good enough, which is why we’re fundamentally changing the way disaster recovery is done.
Together, we’re bringing Fortune 500 strategic, regulatory and financial expertise to the table to get this community back on its feet and create a global model for disaster recovery and resilient restoration. This includes working with globally recognized infrastructure engineering firm EXP and disaster recovery experts from the Boston Consulting Group, who assisted New Orleans in its post-Katrina rebuilding.
In Hope Town, that starts with the basics.
Right now, the island is still covered in debris; residents are relying on small diesel generators for electricity, and power lines across the island are completely destroyed.
Rebuilding our electrical infrastructure to get the lights back on is our first priority, but just repairing overhead power lines won’t protect against the next storm.
Instead, through blended capital structures combining grants, impact investments and loans, we can develop sustainable, resilient and affordable options for localized power generation and other utilities. We’ll start by putting all utilities underground, with the larger goal of providing residents and visitors with autonomous power generation through renewable sources like solar.
The use of solar, along with battery storage, reduces the dependency on traditional power sources on the main island of Great Abaco. During the day, our solar network will power the island and charge the batteries.
At night, the batteries will provide continuous power. When a storm such as Dorian is looming, these batteries can be temporarily moved to locations outside of the storm’s path so we can regain power more quickly.
We know that building a sustainable community requires more than solar panels and batteries for energy generation. It requires evolving our waste disposal process to reduce our environmental impact.
Before Hurricane Dorian, waste was collected and shipped off to a landfill on Great Abaco, shifting the problem of waste rather than tackling it head-on. This is a financial burden to residents and harmful to the environment.
This outdated process can be replaced with new technology, such as gasification, to convert waste into a gas substitute for energy use while reducing emissions. The community can treat the waste on island and, in the process, reduce its impact on the environment. This can support a long-term waste management cycle solution on the island — one of the keys to long-term sustainability.
These are just a few of the solutions we are proposing for Elbow Cay. We know that extreme weather and flooding will continue to happen, but how we react as a global community can change the future for Elbow Cay and other coastal areas around the world.
Through hard work, innovative thinking and determination, we’re redefining the meaning of Hope Town. It’s not just the hope that we can build a better, more resilient and environmentally sustainable future for our island: It’s the hope that we can build a new model for disaster recovery that people across the world can benefit from.
Matt Winslow is the chairman of Hope Town United.
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