These are the names proposed for the first three named tropical storms that develop in the Atlantic and Caribbean during this year’s hurricane season. Alberto has already shown up early.
Although the season doesn’t officially start until June 1, Alberto who started life in the south west Caribbean close to Belize, is heading north for a rendezvous with the US Gulf Coast sometime in the next few days. Alberto’s status is a sub-tropical storm—so at the moment he’s not the most dangerous of these extreme weather events.
It’s not the first time that hurricanes have developed early in the season. Last year Arlene started work in April, while in 2016, Alex spun into life in January—way ahead of schedule.
Irma and Maria
2017 was a catastrophic year for the Caribbean Islands: Irma and Maria ripped through Barbuda, Dominica, Puerto Rico, the Virgin islands, and many small Caribbean islands that didn’t get much media coverage. I’m not forgetting Harvey and the destruction it caused in Texas. But the US mainland gets back on its feet relatively quickly. The Caribbean islands don’t.
So what lessons were learned from last year’s deadly hurricane season? And how should small islands in the Caribbean prepare for this year’s storms?
First off—communications. It’s not just about the emergency crews and the first responders. This is about the islanders themselves. The first thing that people do during and after a catastrophic event is to reach for the cell phone: friends, family, hospitals, fire service, police—anyone who can provide information and tell people what’s happening. Should they move or stay put? Will the storm get worse or is the worst over? Is it safe to go outside? Which hospitals are open and which are closed?
Every family has someone with a cell phone. Even the poorest families. But if the network goes down, no-one knows what’s happening. This is an absolute priority. All the urban centers must have at least one communication mast that can resist a Category 5 storm. And forget the grid. The working assumption is that the grid will crash. No island government facing an approaching hurricane should ever count on the grid system staying operational. All planning should be based on the assumption that the centralized power system will fail. When hurricane Maria tore through Dominica on its way to Puerto Rico, all communication systems on the island failed. The island blacked out.
Communications work on electricity, so how to keep the system up and running? Every communication mast on the island should be powered by a photovoltaic system that is designed to withstand Cat 5 winds. PV modules, batteries, and control systems all checked out just before the storm hits.
Next are the community centers. These serve several purposes. They shelter the most vulnerable families during the storm; they stock and distribute bottled water, basic foodstuffs, and essential neonatal supplies. And last but not least they let families charge their cell phones.
So do island governments need to start building community protection and service centers?
No. They already have them. They’re called schools.
It’s really striking how poorly utilized most schools are. Constructed with public funds but sitting empty and silent most of the time, these large solid resilient structures can shelter hundreds of families. They have washrooms, cafeterias, and lots of space. What they don’t have is a communication capability and an independent power supply.
All schools should have photovoltaic energy systems independent of the grid. That means that an energy storage system (ESS)—aka batteries, needs to be part of the system.
This is not a new idea. PV systems installed on schools are becoming increasingly common in the US and Canada. The logic is different though: schools consume lots of electricity and PV systems are a least-cost option. You might also get your school roof repaired (in Ontario, Canada), and teach a really good physics class (in the US) .
Florida’s SunSmart Schools and Emergency Shelters Program has installed 115 10-kW PV systems with storage at Florida’s schools to create emergency shelters.
On small islands, this means there is work to do. Select the schools that are not at risk from flooding. These will be on higher ground—good for communications. Select for plenty of space, professional and motivated staff, and a large flat roof. Several schools, not just one.
The PV system could be either rooftop or on the ground adjacent to the school. Either way, it needs to be able to withstand Cat 5 windspeeds. This is no easy task. The PV panels installed in the town of Les Anglais in Haiti in 2015 were ripped apart by hurricane Matthew one year later. Only now is that system once again becoming operational . PV panels need to be placed flat and be locked down before the storm hits. Panels placed on rigid inclined frames in an open space are too vulnerable. The inverters, ESS, and any other electronics all need to be protected from flying debris.
Two Vergnet 275 kW wind turbines on the island of Upolu (Samoa’s second largest island) can be lowered down and held horizontal in the case of a storm . A good idea–but tricky. Photovoltaics are a better option than wind in terms of resilience in regions where hurricanes and cyclones are regular events .
Operational and resilient communication systems allow government to prioritize the third essential element: information. We all see these storms coming. Satellites spot them from their inception and computer models predict their path days ahead. Island governments need to make sure that communities and families know what to expect, know where to go to find shelter, and provide other advice that helps keep communities safe. This brings us back to communications and to storm-resistant stand-alone photovoltaic power systems.
From where do government agencies broadcast these messages? The guidance here is case-specific, but governments need to ensure that they have thought this through, and are confident that national radio won’t get blown away, and that the radio power supply is independent of the grid.
There is of course much more that can be done to prepare for extreme weather. But managing the aftermath of the event requires reliable communications.
And that means distributed energy systems powered by solar energy.
For more information:
 See: Brighter future: a study on solar in US schools, available at : https://www.seia.org/research-resources/brighter-future-study-solar-us-schools-report.
See also : By using energy storage with solar panels, some homeowners were able to go off-grid, showing how distributed power could speed future storm recovery. Available at : https://insideclimatenews.org/news/15092017/after-hurricane-irma-solar-florida-homes-power-gird-out-city-traffic-lights-running
Also see the article from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory: Distributed solar PV for electricity system resiliency. Available here:
See also: New bill targets solar: storage for disaster resilience in Florida. An article published by Renewable Energy World on January 4, 2018. Find the article here.
 See the EarthSpark website at: http://www.earthsparkinternational.org/blog/solar-powered-microgrid-nears-completion-in-les-anglais-haiti
 See : Samoa inaugurates 1st windfarm as Pacific turns away from diesel. Accessed at: https://reneweconomy.com.au/samoa-inaugurates-1st-wind-farm-as-pacific-turns-away-from-diesel-71201/
Also check out the book: Climate change adaptation in small island developing states. Published this year by Wiley.