As recovery gives way to rebuilding in the Caribbean, the islands are grappling with decisions about how to reconstruct: Should they work as fast as possible in an attempt to salvage what they can of a lost winter season, or should they take the time to rethink building in a region that is likely to face many more Category 5 storms?

"The need to recover longer term can't be outweighed by what seem like short-term wins," said Kyle Shelton, director of strategic partnerships at the Kinder Institute at Rice University in Houston, who studies storm response. "The magnitude of financial impact that comes from repeatedly rebuilding and repairing structures is so much bigger than the cost of strategically thinking about where and how you are developing."

Shelton said that following a disaster, the typical response in most places is to try to repair the damage and rebuild to where they were before.

Given the reality of climate change, he said, the conversation needs to be about how to prepare for disasters and to make decisions about how to avert a high level of impact the next time.

"That's a shift that is really crucial for a lot of regions to make as we enter into a time and era with storms of greater strength and likely greater frequency," Shelton said.

Beverly Nicholson-Doty, commissioner of tourism for the U.S. Virgin Islands, said similar conversations are taking place on the damaged islands. For that reason, she said, she believes the recovery presents an opportunity.

"We expect to have not only a refreshed product and an improved visitor experience but a product that is rebuilt smarter and stronger -- essentially, more resilient to the vagaries of weather patterns that impact our region," Nicholson-Doty said.

A street being repaired in San Juan.
A street being repaired in San Juan. Photo Credit: TW photo by Johanna Jainchill

One investment the U.S. Virgin Islands plans to make is in its power distribution. Before the storms, only a few lines were buried underground: those serving crucial infrastructure such as hospitals, airports and business districts.

U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp has said that in the long term, it would be much more cost-effective to bury more cables, and his office said that the Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to his request to conduct a complete analysis on the cost and feasibility of burying major power lines.

However, like most places recovering from disasters, the U.S. Virgin Islands also wants to move quickly to restore normalcy. Throughout both St. Thomas and Puerto Rico in December, power lines were being erected on wooden poles as they always have been, in a rush to restore electricity to people as quickly as possible.

The same issues are being faced by locals who are eager to get the tourist industry moving again.

On Crash Boat Beach, on Puerto Rico's northwestern shore, Hurricane Maria pushed what had been a very wide beach back several hundred yards, into what has long been a parking lot.

Some locals said to leave it there, claiming that the sand had returned to where it was before the parking lot was built and because the remaining beach had become so small after the storm.

Others lobbied to move the sand back to the beach so that food trucks and tour providers could set up in the lot and bring visitors back.

The city of Aguadilla moved the sand, to the chagrin of Cocoloba at Crash Boat Beach, which operates two beachfront "casitas" and planned to build more before Maria did its damage.

"Maria gave us an opportunity to rethink [the beach's] configuration and how to make it better, " Cocoloba said on its Spanish-language Facebook page. "Unfortunately, the actions of the municipality of Aguadilla eliminated those opportunities and practically eliminated the beach. ... It is frustrating that we aren't taking advantage of this situation to rethink and improve our island."

The post continued: "We can't rebuild the Puerto Rico of before; we need a better one. Sadly, Crash Boat is the first example of how we don't learn lessons."

Do it quick, or do it right?

In early December on St. Thomas, Richard Doumeng, owner of the Bolongo Bay Resort, was deciding how to rebuild the property's popular beachfront bar, Iggies, which was destroyed by the storm. The dilemma he faced then, and still faces, was knowing that unchecked development in the hills behind the beach created water runoff issues that will be exacerbated by the bigger storms that climate change is bringing to the region. 

"This is an opportunity to look at sustainable development," Doumeng said. "We have the ability to patch it up and make it go away. Until the next time. The Earth is changing, the climate is changing. What can we do to be more proactive and find sustainable ways to make it work in the future?"

Doumeng said he is hopeful that the magnitude of damage from the recent hurricanes will encourage the government and other stakeholders to think more about sustainable land-use plans. Although no resolution has been decided, he said in January that "senators, commissioners, architects and engineers" are engaged in discussions about the issue and that he was gathering input and recommendations from the Army Corps, civil engineers who specialize in beach erosion and the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources.

"We are looking to build it differently," he said.

The beach at Bolongo Bay in St. Thomas several weeks after the hurricanes. Photo Credit: TW photo by Johanna Jainchill

Doumeng said that while few structures could sustain two Category 5 storms in two weeks -- St. Thomas was one of few islands to take direct hits from both Irma and Maria -- he thinks better planning and development of the region would have mitigated the damage somewhat.

"What do we learn to minimize future damage? This was a dress rehearsal," he said.

Imani Daniel, chairwoman of the St. Thomas Long Term Recovery Group, said that there is a push on St. Thomas for the government to buy out people who live in such flood zones and rebuild the areas sustainably.

"People are in crazy watershed flood zones, and you don't find out until you're hit with two Category 5 storms," Daniel said. "We didn't do our coastal management as well as we should have."

Daniel also pointed to another reason that people on the islands are talking about building smarter: the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the insurance companies, both of which "are saying, 'If we're going to pay for this recovery, we're not going to give you guys money to build a wall that's going to fall down in the next hurricane.' Insurance companies realize that if you get hit next year, this could happen again, so is it worth it?"

Properties large and small have had to make such decisions, and many are sacrificing a quick reopening in order to rebuild a more storm-resistant product.

Steven Lassman, vice president of Villas of Distinction, said this was true of some villa owners.

"Instead of rushing to recoup Christmas bookings, they decided, 'let's do it right, rebuild properly and open at the end of January, or February or in March,'" he said. "So if there is another hurricane, it will be days versus months in recovery."

On Anguilla, Ira Bloom, CEO of Ani Villas private resorts, is overseeing the rebuilding of Ani's two-structure, private resort that was heavily damaged by Irma and will not open until March.

Bloom said that, in general, Anguilla's buildings are well-built for hurricanes, but he called Irma "a different animal."

With an eye toward future storms of that magnitude, Ani is rebuilding the property with additional reinforcement of its doors and windows and making other changes like using steel framing instead of weaker metals in some areas. It is also using different techniques to allow the passage of water and wind through structures.

"We are building stuff stronger in many cases," Bloom said. "And new structures we are building are definitely being built with what transpired in mind."

Ani Villas’ two-structure, private resort in Anguilla was heavily damaged by Irma and will not reopen until March.

Others said that it is basically impossible to build a structure capable of withstanding the strength of the storms that hit the Caribbean last year.

David Krech, director of sales and marketing for St. Thomas' Sugar Bay Resort & Spa, which was badly damaged and is expected to reopen by Christmas, said that was especially true of St. Thomas. Irma, the strongest Atlantic hurricane on record with 185 mph sustained winds and gusts of up to 230 mph, ripped off roofs islandwide before Maria dumped 20 inches of water on the island, destroying those roofless structures.

"I mean, how often has that ever happened?" he said. "Nothing escapes the catastrophic damage from Category 5 Hurricanes ... even structures built to Cat 5 code."

Rice University's Shelton said that on small islands where it isn't easy to relocate hotels and homes, and where the tourist economy prizes waterfront properties, the rebuilding equation might be different.

"In St. Thomas, it may be worth it to rebuild in places that have been damaged multiple times in a way it might not be in another place," he said. "But if you do that, are there ways that may increase the upfront cost but in the long term maybe reduce the amount of damage we're repairing during subsequent storms? There's a different equation for every locality. All those unique circumstances need to be taken into consideration."

The pools at the Sugar Bay Resort & Spa in St. Thomas after hurricanes Maria and Irma; the resort is expected to reopen for Christmas. Photo Credit: TW photo by Johanna Jainchill

Recovery efforts hampered

For many structures, from 400-room hotels to individual homes, any discussion about how to rebuild plays second fiddle to when they can rebuild. 

And across the Caribbean, with its acute shortage of supplies, construction workers and rooms for those who would travel to the islands to work, "when" is increasingly difficult to determine.

"We are in big trouble," said Pascale Minarro-Baudouin of St. Barth Properties, a villa rental company.

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She said there are not enough workers on the island and that those who are able to come from other places to supplement them can't find places to stay. This is especially difficult on islands like St. Barts and Anguilla where room and villa rental rates are so high.  

"We cannot get as many people as we want because of that," Minarro-Baudouin said.

In addition, building materials headed to islands like St. Barts and Anguilla must come through badly hit St. Martin, where piers were damaged and the airport is still not fully functional.

"People who want to rebuild immediately have to be patient because they can't get the materials," she said.

This is the case in St. Thomas, as well, Krech said.

"Because of all the damage to homes, vacation homes, rentals, hotels and resorts, there has been an extreme shortage of accommodations for construction and recovery workers to stay in to bring the island back," he said.

Daniel also cited the lack of housing and space. "We don't have the space or capacity to rebuild ourselves," she said of St. Thomas. "We will have to ship in all the materials and store them somewhere. It will be solved, but we can't just expand the island or build workers a place to stay. Once we really get into the rebuilding, our local government will have to figure that out. And pay for it."

The cost of rebuilding after such storms will undoubtedly make it more difficult to insure property in hurricane-prone areas, leaving more people dependent on governments to foot reconstruction costs, and these governments are facing record disaster costs.

According to the New York Times, in 2017, storms and wildfires cost the U.S. government $306 billion, more than triple the amount the federal government spent on education that year.

Hurricane Harvey, which dumped more water than any U.S. storm in recorded history, alone is estimated to have cost $125 billion, second only to 2005's Hurricane Katrina.

And Maria's devastation is expected to cost $90 billion in repairs in Puerto Rico, where parts of the island still don't have power a full six months after the storm.

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