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How a small Caribbean nation is resisting climate change and rising sea levels


Tropical Storm Bret battered the Caribbean with heavy rain and winds this week. Scientists warn climate change will likely bring more intense and frequent storms to island nations in part due to rising ocean temperatures. One nation, Dominica, has launched an ambitious plan to become the world's most-climate-resilient country by 2030. With support from the U.N. Foundation, NPR's Kirk Siegler traveled to Dominica to report how it's actually still recovering from a devastating hurricane six years ago.


KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: It's just before dawn in Layou, a fishing village on the west coast of Dominica, a mountainous, jungly island roughly the size of New York City.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hi. Morning, (inaudible).


SIEGLER: Villagers are up early to harvest titiwi, a tiny river fish. It's a local staple that's made into a delicious fried fritter.


SIEGLER: The men scoop the penny-sized fish out of a net they left overnight in this river channel that dumps into the sea.

PETER ALEXANDER: Here was the main, main fishing spot, Layou. You get all type of fish - even as you see there, titiwi. Yeah.

SIEGLER: Peter Alexander, a slender man with brown dreadlocks and a salt-and-pepper beard, is waist deep in the water.

ALEXANDER: Ah, you see it is a tradition for Layou. Everybody in Layou, as you could see, fishing - everybody make money.

SIEGLER: Except these days, making money from fishing is getting way harder, and the village is stressed. Hurricane Maria in 2017 changed everything. Mudslides blocked the Layou River, plugging up the currents and this estuary.

ALEXANDER: We had a big disaster up in the heights. A landslide fall down. And the whole river, entire, stop. It's like no river.

SIEGLER: Now to make a living, Alexander has to travel all over the country just to find enough tuna, mackerel and other fish that were once abundant right here.

ALEXANDER: It was terrible disaster for Dominica. But we survive. And you say praise God for that.

SIEGLER: Maria was terrible. Two feet of rain fell. The wind blew upwards of 165 miles per hour. Mudslides cut off villages from aid for weeks. Maria used to be considered a once-in-a-lifetime disaster, but scientists say these powerful storms are more likely due to climate change. It's been six years, and yet Maria continues to upend so much of everyday life in this mostly rural country, which long depended on subsistence agriculture and fishing.


SIEGLER: Dubbed Nature Island for its dramatic beauty, Dominica's steep, 4,000-foot-high volcanic mountains crash down to the ocean.


SIEGLER: But Dominica is not known for the white sandy beaches of some of its more famous neighbors like Barbados. They've tried to push ecotourism, but the country's economy has struggled since its independence from Great Britain in 1978.

SAMUEL CARRETTE: The pillars of economic growth were not fully planted and still are not fully planted. And then, basically, they were blown away completely.

SIEGLER: This is Samuel Carrette, who runs the Climate Resilience Execution Agency for Dominica, or CREAD, which was started by the government after Maria.

CARRETTE: We lost 226% of our GDP, 93% of our housing stock.

SIEGLER: It's staggering.

CARRETTE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Staggering, indeed, and very traumatizing as well.

SIEGLER: Today it's Carrette's job to usher through an ambitious government plan to make his country the, quote, "world's first climate-resilient nation." By 2030, Dominica wants sweeping hurricane-resistant building codes in place, an islandwide emergency alert system and homegrown geothermal energy they don't have to import. They're even trying to change the crops they grow to more root vegetables that could survive devastating winds.

CARRETTE: We are basically putting all systems in place to ensure that if the worst happens, we will be ready to cope, to manage and to recover.

SIEGLER: The price tag is about $2.8 billion. Only 70,000 or so people live here, so a lot of it will depend on international aid. But disaster recovery experts, like Lori Peek at the University of Colorado, see this as fair. Big, developed nations, like the U.S., contribute the most amount of climate pollution, which makes the future precarious for small countries like Dominica.

LORI PEEK: If the recent wildfires in Canada and affecting the United States have taught us anything, it is that we are all interconnected. We are all living at risk.

SIEGLER: Peek is also currently working on mudslide mitigation in Puerto Rico after Maria. She says Dominica's plan is bold, but it sets measurable targets. She warns there's a small window to get it done.

PEEK: The risk is outrunning us. And so as we're trying to mitigate and to adapt, disasters keep coming, and they keep layering on top of each other.

SIEGLER: Even just a tropical storm, like Bret this summer, could set everything back. Now, the Dominica government has built about 7,000 new homes to withstand another Category 5 hurricane. There was so much destruction from recent storms on the more vulnerable east coast that they actually picked up and moved two whole communities to another part of the island.

SAM RAFAEL: See the avocados, man, coming in.

SIEGLER: After a tropical storm severely damaged his resort in 2015, Sam Rafael also decided to pick up and move his entire business to the more sheltered western coast of Dominica.

RAFAEL: When we moved on to this side, we tied everything with reinforced steel and concrete.

SIEGLER: Gone are the villas on wooden stilts. In the dining room, perched high on a bluff with a rewarding view of the deep blue Caribbean, the traditional island-themed wooden beams, they're a facade. They're really made of concrete.

RAFAEL: You walk in here, you would never think that this is a new building that was recently built.

SIEGLER: Rafael hopes the new buildings will never get tested by a storm as bad as Maria, but...

RAFAEL: Are you going to be a hundred percent prepared? You never know because the storms are getting worse and worse. But the key is to prepare yourself better because you know it's coming. It's not a matter of if; it's a matter of when.

SIEGLER: But Rafael knows a lot of people can't afford to do what he did. Traveling Dominica's countless steep, narrow mountain roads, it's clear that many people built back from Maria as well as they could.


SIEGLER: And some people have just left. You can see that on this narrow street in the seaside village of Soufriere, below Rafael's resort, two houses were wiped out and clearly never rebuilt.


SIEGLER: You can see vines growing out of some of the busted-out windows, nature taking over. They're both missing their roofs.


SIEGLER: The prime minister of nearby Barbados recently warned of a large-scale exodus from the Caribbean soon if global emissions aren't drastically cut. Samuel Carrette, who's leading Dominica's 2030 climate plan, thinks there's still time. These storms, he says, you have to outsmart them.

CARRETTE: For now, we have to figure out how to live with the hurricanes. And one way is to build resilience. When it becomes unbearable (laughter) and so unsustainable, we have to consider the possibility.

SIEGLER: The possibility that there might one day be parts of the island where it's not safe to live anymore.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Soufriere, Dominica. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.