Home Opinion Hurricane Matthew: An Ill Wind Triggers Policy Change Opportunities

Hurricane Matthew: An Ill Wind Triggers Policy Change Opportunities

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By Ariana Marshall
EDM Digest Guest Writer

Note: This is the first of a three-part series: Part I | Part II | Part III

A decade ago, we would have called Hurricane Matthew a 100-year storm. It is now one of the strongest, deadliest and most destructive hurricanes to make landfall in 52 years.

Rising temperatures and sea levels demonstrate that we can no longer expect storms with the intense impact of Hurricane Matthew to occur every 100 years. Instead, we can expect storms to become more intense as global warming continues, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Hurricane Matthew has already broken meteorological records, based on the length of time it remained a hurricane, how quickly it developed into a Category 4 hurricane and the time of year it made landfall. We haven’t even begun to estimate the records this hurricane might surpass, based on its economic impact on the areas it affected.

Storm Intensity Offers Opportunities for Policy Changes

With respect to the loss of life and livelihoods, there is a useful opportunity after an intense storm like Hurricane Matthew to assess the public’s response to it and the information sharing among the public, emergency professionals and government authorities. It is also a way to measure how effective preparations were in both private and public sectors.

Most of all, Hurricane Matthew allows us to assess how natural disasters can advance policy changes that become glaringly necessary after storm damage.

Severe Storms Open a Window for Policy Discussions

Intense storms make everything worse. Even when they do not make landfall, such storms have the potential to worsen and intensify existing social issues. These storms also propel solutions to problems through the opportunities that follow the heightened visibility of those societal issues. Storms that induce solutions are considered a focusing event, which creates a policy window of opportunity.

Opportunities for change through a policy window occur when political discussion, problems articulated through mass media and public comments, and public record policies all converge to create documented discussions and policy-driven solutions. This convergence creates a cohesive and informed opportunity for governments to implement new and more effective policies.

The Barbados Example – Near Miss and National Shutdown

In its early stages, Hurricane Matthew was a slow-moving tropical storm that had a minimal impact on the eastern Caribbean island of Barbados. Prior to Matthew’s landfall, the government made the decision to establish a national shutdown that called for the closing of most businesses, government offices and public transportation.

The national shutdown began at 6 p.m. on September 27, but the first rainfall didn’t occur until midday on September 28. The most visible effects from the storm included flooding, coral reef damage, littered beaches and damaged trees.

Some businesses made the decision to remain open or to re-open as quickly as possible. That led to public scrutiny about the safety risk posed to employees.

One-Day Shutdown Cost Barbados $22 Million in GDP

The economic impact of this shutdown dominated the Barbadian press for a week. Barbadian economist Jeremy Stephen estimated that Barbados lost $22 million of its gross domestic product during the day of the national shutdown, but he also assured the public that the shutdown was still the best choice based on the capacity of the country’s “Catastrophe Fund” and the potential loss of life.

Although businesses did lose income and workers lost pay, no lives were lost as a result of the storm. However, the country’s reaction to a best-case scenario of economic impact rather than a Category 4 hurricane raised questions about the private sector’s resiliency, the effectiveness of public sector information dissemination and the efficiency of mass media communication.

A Test Lab for New and More Effective Policy Solutions

The full scope of Hurricane Matthew’s impact on the Caribbean and the U.S. southeastern coast is yet to be determined. Although storms like Hurricane Matthew do a significant amount of damage, they are a testing lab for assessing policy effectiveness and solution-oriented public engagement. This will be explored in the next two articles using the example of Barbados, home to the first U.N. conference and policy on sustainable development for small island developing states.

About the Author

Dr. Ariana Marshall is a faculty member with the School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math at American Public University. She is the Director for the Caribbean Sustainability Collective and focuses on culturally relevant sustainability and climate change adaptation. Ariana completed her doctorate in environmental science and risk management at FAMU.