Dominican Republic city prepares for hurricane season after 2017 devastation

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The Dominican Republic’s second city is bracing for hurricane season with a new evacuation plan after storms last year killed around 90 people, said its chief resilience officer.

Santiago de los Caballeros is still struggling with the economic toll from hurricanes Maria and Irma, but authorities are taking measures to mitigate the damage from future storms, said Maria Isabel Serrano Dina.

Maria and Irma left a trail of destruction as they crashed through the Caribbean in 2017, raising fears in many island nations that infrastructure and economies could be devastated by even more powerful storms in the future.

One lesson from last year, said Serrano, is that the city of almost 700,000 people needs a clear evacuation plan for those in low-lying areas that are most vulnerable to storm damage.

“They didn’t want to evacuate and we tried to make them leave by force, but it was very difficult,” she said.

“We had to use the police department and the military forces, so it’s not the best way to manage.”

This year, authorities are involving neighbourhoods in evacuation plans, she said.

Workers are also bolstering schools and hospitals, which quickly filled up in the aftermath of last year’s hurricanes, and making sure that trees and electrical cables are less likely to fall in high winds, Serrano added.

As a member of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative, Santiago de los Caballeros has prioritised disaster preparedness, alongside developing infrastructure, improving transport and reducing domestic violence, she said.

Santiago de los Caballeros, which lies on the Yaque del Norte River 160 km miles (100 miles) north of the capital, Santo Domingo, recently unveiled its 87-page resilience strategy.

But faced with limited resources to implement the plan, Serrano said authorities have had to take an imaginative approach.

“One of the biggest challenges is money. What can you do with a little budget? You have to be creative,” she said.

Working with businesses to sponsor local parks or to take responsibility for street lights is a cost-effective way of funding schemes and giving private sector companies a vested interest in protecting their areas, she said.

Public education and outreach programmes help communities get more involved, said Serrano, who has appeared on local television and radio shows to publicise resilience efforts.

Rapid, haphazard growth in informal neighbourhoods has left many people with inadequate access to services and infrastructure, Serrano told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Major challenges include improving the city’s drinking water supply and waste management system, she said.