Caribbean Disaster Mitigation Project
Implemented by the Organization of American States
Unit of Sustainable Development and Environment
for the USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and the Caribbean Regional Program


Note (August 1997): This paper was originally written in the fall of 1995. Some of the information presented here, consequently, is out of date. The primary purpose for making it available now is to provide historical information on the origins of the CDMP.

The Caribbean Disaster Mitigation Project:
Technical Assistance for Natural Disaster Management
at the Regional Scale 

In October 1993, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Organization of American States (OAS) began cooperation in providing technical assistance for disaster mitigation in several nations of the Wider Caribbean Region, through a five year, $5.0 million project funded by the USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). The Caribbean Disaster Mitigation Project is designed to address specific problems of disaster mitigation:

The CDMP addresses these problems by promoting public/private sector collaboration in disaster loss reduction, and by focusing on major issues in the disaster/development linkage in the Caribbean, such as: improving public awareness and decision-making by accurately mapping hazard prone and environmentally fragile areas; achieving sustainable development by reducing natural hazard vulnerability in existing and planned development; and better managing risk and maintaining adequate catastrophe protection for the region.

Natural disasters and their management in the Caribbean

By their location, topography and physical characteristics, the Caribbean Basin nations are subject to extreme atmospheric, hydrological and geological events. These include drought, earthquakes, fires, floods, hurricanes, landslides, volcanoes and excessive or continuous wind. While the ecological dynamics and significance to ecosystem function of these events is not fully understood, their impact on human affairs is well documented.

Since 1900 a total of 153 natural disasters have been reported for the Caribbean island nations, Suriname, Guyana and Belize (OFDA, 1989). Two-thirds of these disasters (103) were caused by tropical storms or hurricanes, with the remainder consisting of 25 floods, 10 fires, 5 volcanic eruptions and 3 earthquakes. Haiti is the country that suffered the largest number of events (25) followed closely by Jamaica, with 22. In the Caribbean, hurricanes are the most frequent and wide ranging natural disturbance, and they have been recorded as causing significant damage to human settlements as early as 1509, when Santo Domingo was destroyed. (Douglas, 1992). Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have been responsible for the greatest loss of life during the modern history of the Caribbean (Tomblin, 1981). These extreme natural events, in and of themselves, cannot be defined as natural disasters if they do not involve significant loss of life and damage to property. Thus, an earthquake in a largely uninhabited area is merely a natural event, in contrast to an earthquake in a populated area, such as Los Angeles, California, which has caused extensive damage to public infrastructure and private dwellings, and which has caused many injuries and deaths. Hence, a natural disaster is defined not by the event, but rather by its impacts.

Human impacts in coastal areas, such as clearing of mangroves, filling of coastal wetlands, destruction of coral reefs, and mining of dune and beach sand, can contribute to the increased severity of natural disasters. In many upland areas, unregulated and unplanned agriculture and forestry has resulted in extensive erosion and subsequent sedimentation of rivers and reefs. These human impacts reduce the ability of ecosystems to dampen the impacts of storms and other natural hazards. For example, upland deforestation serves to amplify the negative effects of hurricanes, most notably by increasing the likelihood of flash flooding and landslides. These floods and landslides can subsequently impact human settlements which have been sited in vulnerable areas, or where such hazards have not been taken into account in the design and construction of dwellings and other structures.

In the event of such disasters, scarce resources previously earmarked for development projects must usually be diverted to relief measures. Foreign exchange earnings are used for the importation of emergency food supplies, for the rehabilitation of the agricultural and manufacturing sectors, and for basic reconstruction. (Vermeiren, 1992) The cumulative economic effect of natural disasters on the Caribbean societies is one of loss of production, reduced employment, disruption in the balance of trade, and increased foreign indebtedness, all of which serve to set back economic growth. (Ahmad, 1991)

Until the late 1970's the traditional approach to disasters in the region was concentrated on post-disaster relief. However, after the devastating hurricanes in 1979 and 1980, a dramatic shift of resources from capital development projects to post disaster reconstruction and rehabilitation led the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) to consider that a broader and more fundamental approach to disaster management might be needed. Discussions took place during the period 1979–1984 on a new concept of disaster management, most notably in a Health Ministers' Conference of CARICOM, and these in turn led to the creation of several national disaster management agencies and one regional disaster management project, the "Pan Caribbean Disaster Preparedness and Prevention Project" (PCDPPP) (UNDRO, 1991)

Activities of the PCDPPP were funded with contributions from USAID, the Canadian International Development Agency, the Government of the Netherlands, the United Nations Disaster Relief Organization (UNDRO) and from the participating countries and territories. Programs were developed or implemented, jointly with the University of West Indies' Seismic Research Unit, the Caribbean News Agency, the Caribbean Examinations Council, The Caribbean Council of Engineering Organizations, the Caribbean Telecommunications Union, the Jamaica Office of Disaster Preparedness, the Barbados Central Emergency Relief Organization, CARICOM, OAS, and other UN agencies. The PCDPPP lasted from 1981 to 1991, and when its term expired, a void was left with respect to long-term planning for region-wide disaster preparedness activities. The CDMP was, in part, designed to respond to this need, and this was done within the context of the UN International Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction.

UN International Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR)

In 1989 the International Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction was declared by the UN in order "to reduce ... the loss of life, property damage and social and economic disruption caused by natural disasters, such as earthquakes, windstorms, tsunamis, floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions, wildfire, grasshopper and calamities of natural origin." (Bruce, 1992) The resolution was intended to encourage international donors to require natural disaster mitigation plans as a part of their development programs.

In spite of the striking political, cultural and socio-economic diversity that characterizes the Wider Caribbean region, these countries have come to the mutual understanding that natural disasters pose a real threat to their individual and collective economic development. In September 1991, the UN IDNDR Scientific and Technical Committee (STC) drafted the Guatemala Declaration, which was agreed to by twenty Latin American countries (including Cuba and the Dominican Republic), who sought for the first time, to unify regional governmental institutions, in their efforts to link disaster prevention and mitigation to environmental conditions. The OAS participated as an organizer and observer at this meeting, and presented a program of "Sector Vulnerability Reduction Activities". The meeting raised the policy level of awareness and support for disaster prevention activities at the regional scale. On October 15, 1991, the first International Day for Natural Disaster Reduction, the OAS passed a resolution declaring OAS activities to be a contribution to the Decade and calling on member States to integrate natural hazard management and mitigation activities into socio-economic development. This resolution was recognized by the STC as central to gaining the political support for technical activities needed at the regional and national levels. (UN IDNDR—STC, 1991)

Subsequently, a UN IDNDR meeting modeled after the Guatemala meeting, but adapted to the Caribbean, was held in Kingston, Jamaica, May 26–29, 1992. At this Caribbean Meeting for Natural Disasters, Dr. James Bruce, the Chair of the UN IDNDR–STC pointed out that private sector involvement at the international level in IDNDR development has lagged behind gains achieved in developing a web of partnerships between UN agencies, non-governmental scientific and humanitarian organizations, and regional and national bodies. He noted that the insurance, construction and tourism components of the private sector are particularly important, and that experience in the Caribbean in integrating these sectors, while addressing the problems of disaster reduction, could help to provide worldwide leadership. (UN IDNDR, 1992)

USAID—Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance

As regional governments have increasingly recognized the importance of disaster management, their efforts to address this issue have been strongly supported by USAID through the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), which served as one of the original PCDPPP funding agencies, and which supported the Caribbean IDNDR meeting. OFDA had previously funded the preparation of the Natural Disaster Mitigation Strategy for Jamaica in 1984. In 1986, elements of this strategy were implemented by the Jamaican Office of Disaster Preparedness (ODP) in conjunction with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

In 1991, as the PCDPPP was coming to a close, the USAID Offices of Regional Housing and Urban Development Office for the Caribbean (RHUDO/CAR) and OFDA, joined forces to conduct an assessment of disaster management in the region in order to develop a comprehensive approach to problems identified by national governments in the area of disaster management. This led to the development of two parallel programs: a Regional Disaster Management Training Program, and a Disaster Mitigation Program. The design of the Caribbean Disaster Mitigation Program was completed in 1992. The OFDA/USAID draft specifically seeks to:

The principles that guided the design of the CDMP were:

RHUDO's project design report concluded with the recommendation that OFDA should fund a five-year project, and that the OAS Department of Regional Development and Environment (OAS/DRDE) act as general project manager. The project budget was estimated at $5.0 million. (RHUDO/CAR, 1992)

OAS Department of Regional Development and Environment (DRDE)

The OAS/DRDE has been involved in natural hazards risk assessment and disaster mitigation activities in Latin America and the Caribbean basin since 1983. It provides cooperation in natural hazard management to OAS member states through technical assistance, training and technology transfer. Their unique expertise in this field, and their success in implementing an earlier OFDA-funded Natural Hazard Mitigation Project in OAS member states, contributed to their selection by USAID to implement the CDMP.

OAS/DRDE's efforts in disaster management have been concentrated in: assessing natural hazard risk as part of ongoing national and regional development planning, in making information on natural hazards more accessible to emergency preparedness and development planning agencies, and, in training planners, disaster preparedness personnel and community leaders in hazard assessment and disaster mitigation techniques. Specifically, prior to the CDMP the OAS/DRDE had:

The development planning process evolved by the OAS/DRDE is multidisciplinary and multi-sectoral, and aims to bring together issues in relevant economic and social sectors, which are analyzed vis-a-vis the needs of the population and the opportunities and constraints of the associated natural resource base. In the course of their efforts, OAS/DRDE has developed practical and effective methodologies for natural hazard assessments in the context of development planning and project formulation. The DRDE has brought this approach to bear on the implementation of the CDMP through its start-up phase, and in the initiation of several project components.

Project Scope: Addressing Issues of Disaster Mitigation in the Caribbean through a Problem Solving Approach

Upon completion of the agreement between the OAS General Secretariat and USAID to collaborate on the CDMP, the DRDE set out to incorporate their insights and apply their methodology to the objectives of the CDMP as outlined by USAID/RHUDO. A Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) was established with representatives from RHUDO/CAR, OFDA, CARICOM, CDERA, USAID/Program on Resources, Environment and Housing (PREH) and USAID missions in the region. A first meeting was organized during which participants reviewed the preliminary one and five year project work plans. The members of the TAC also discussed their roles and responsibilities within the CDMP, project monitoring and evaluation methods, and opportunities for coordination and collaboration with other ongoing disaster management efforts in the region.

In an effort to promote public/private sector collaboration in disaster loss reduction, the CDMP strategy focuses on major issues in the disaster/sustainable development linkage in the Caribbean. These include:

  1. improving public awareness of natural hazard risk by accurately mapping hazard prone/environmentally fragile areas,
  2. achieving sustainable development by reducing natural hazard vulnerability in existing and planned development;
  3. better managing natural hazard risk and maintaining adequate catastrophe protection for the region.

The strategy for implementing the CDMP therefore focuses on three main operative objectives:

Developing a Comprehensive Database to Identify Risk-prone Areas

While local residents have historically been aware of areas in their communities that are prone to flooding, there have been few scientific studies undertaken to identify the magnitude of flood events and possible return periods. In the absence of this information, and in the face of strong competition in the land market, many marginal areas have been developed as either housing or industrial sites. (i.e., Speightstown, in Barbados, and areas of Portmore and Nightingale Grove in Jamaica). Similar situations in other territories reinforce the need for technical studies aimed at identifying risk-prone areas, and highlight the need for the dissemination of reliable information to the general public and to technical agencies. Such efforts are necessary to guide development away from these areas and into safer locations. The generation of this information is also of importance to the insurance industry as it will prove to be essential in developing tools which can assist in assessing catastrophic risks, based on location and overall exposure in these areas.

However, much of the information needed to identify risk prone areas, such as satellite imagery, weather monitoring, and weather prediction information, is located outside of the host country, and outside of the region. Much of this data was originally generated by and for the US government, but is now accessible by the general public. While the private sector in the US is widely and rapidly making use of these data sources, access to this information from within the Caribbean, by either the private or public sector, can be more costly and more complex and may require additional communications skills. By providing appropriate technology and training, the CDMP is assisting countries in locating and integrating these data sources into regional and national hazard mapping databases.

In the Caribbean, the capacity for managing remote solving and geographic information systems this type of data is emerging in academic, governmental and professional institutions in the form of advanced scientific research programs and complex and sometimes very expensive technological applications. Useful research is being conducted in the disciplines of meteorology, volcanology, geology, seismology, civil and structural engineering, and land use planning, and is being applied in multiple hazard mapping and critical facilities mapping and design technologies. In Jamaica, the storm hazard modeling and floodplain mapping activities of CDMP are conducted in collaboration with the University of the West Indies, the Underground Water Authority and the Geological Services Division, and the resulting information is used in the preparation of local and regional plans. This approach can be incorporated into the training programs and curriculums of other institutions, thereby adding another dimension in terms of sustainability and technology transfer. While this type of exercise will be undertaken in other specific target countries, the CDMP includes training in the methodology and its applications, and will be available to all countries in the region. In addition, a relatively inexpensive but highly flexible GIS platform is being used, to insure that the system will be affordable, that data can be easily transferred to other GIS systems and that maps can be easily reproduced in a hardcopy format.

Engaging the Private Sector

The majority of past efforts in disaster management in the region have been focused on strengthening public sector capacity. While public sector response is clearly essential to effective disaster management and has yielded significant results, nearly a decade of experience has also demonstrated that there are inherent limitations to this approach. In general, the Caribbean public sector is both understaffed and under-funded, which inhibits its ability to design and enforce natural hazard mitigation measures, such as building codes or land use zoning. The public sector is also reticent to invest its scarce resources in measures designed to mitigate the impacts of infrequent natural hazards with very long and uncertain return periods. Faced with short-term demands that are often driven by the political process, government instead will support more visible projects that can demonstrate large short-term returns. The CDMP recognizes these limitations, and therefore seeks to identify private sector interest in natural disaster mitigation.

A growing number of multi-national and local private firms recognize that many points in their enterprise are exposed to risk of failure, and have therefore designed disaster prevention and recovery plans. This has been in part due to pressure from regulatory agencies, auditors, shareholders, insurance companies and even customers and suppliers. It is, however increasingly being driven from within, by operations managers who face tight production schedules, and who have addressed the objectives of reducing costs of recovery and preventing breaks in business continuity, by investing in natural hazard mitigation measures. Throughout the Caribbean, the private sector has, in general, more financial resources, more and better trained staff, and a clearer interest in mitigation measures than does the public sector. The CDMP recognizes these advantages in working with the private sector, and therefore actively involves the sector in project activities.

Perhaps the best opportunity for public/private collaboration is in the area of land use planning and improved building codes. The insurance industry and the mortgage finance industry both have an interest in an effective development control and building inspectorate, which can enforce a building code designed to reduce natural hazard risk and prevent catastrophic loss. In conjunction with the UN Center for Human Settlements (UNCHS) and CDERA, the CDMP is working with the insurance, mortgage finance and construction industries, public sector planning agencies, and non-governmental housing organizations to promote safe building practices in the informal sector, and the adoption and effective administration of appropriate building codes in the formal sector.

Stressing the need for an integrated approach to development and disaster mitigation.

The concept of disaster mitigation as part of integrated development planning is still a novel one in the Caribbean. This can be attributed to the apparent lack of an integrated institutional framework and the traditional sectoral fragmentation of development planning. Poor coordination between physical planners and their economic planning counterparts still prevails. Another part of this problem is that investment in mitigation involves uncertainty: even if institutional collaboration is achieved, in a setting of constrained development resources, it may be difficult to justify investment in measures designed to protect against a hypothetical natural event with a 50–100 year return period, especially when there is no reliable information to support such a decision.

From an institutional perspective, the bureaucratic impediments to communicating across agency lines, to the sharing of data and to cooperating in the use of scarce resources, present significant obstacles to an integrated approach to development. The CDMP seeks to address this problem by establishing interagency working groups as counterparts who must share data and resources in order for technical assistance to flow. Technical working groups are designed to include public and private sector agencies that have the expertise to participate directly in the technical aspects of the project as well as agencies and groups that will be the implementors and users of the products, such as hazard maps or retrofitting manuals.

At the national level, CDMP seeks to inform the government and its agencies and key sectors outside of government through existing mechanisms like the national emergency committees, chambers of commerce or trade associations. The CDMP contributes to integrated national development planning through the production of maps, by conducting vulnerability audits, by developing improved building codes, and by training local artisans in retrofitting and adopting safer construction procedures. Additionally, workshops promoting the need for integrated planning are programmed at both the national and regional levels. It is through this avenue that the CDMP aims to provide the basis for a triangular collaboration between the physical and economic planner and the disaster manager.

Summary: Handling Complexity in a Regional Context of Technical Assistance

The task of providing technical assistance for natural disaster mitigation in the Caribbean can be dauntingly complex. The CDMP is intended to be comprehensive in its scope and therefore must simultaneously address several types of natural disasters. It also covers a vast project area, which encompasses the majority of the Greater and Lesser Antilles, and some of mainland Central America, and includes over a dozen sovereign states. The sheer number of countries involved and the large distances between them present significant obstacles to the coordination of an integrated, region-wide program. In addition, the project area is a sub-region within a larger Caribbean region which includes the US coastal states along the Gulf of Mexico (Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas), the eastern-coastal states of Mexico, the Central American countries of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, and the northern coastal states of the South American countries of Columbia, Venezuela, Guyana and Surinam. Although these states share similar problems of natural hazard vulnerability, they often apply radically different methods of mitigation. This can be attributed in part to the fact that the residents of the Caribbean are extremely diverse in their origins and their present cultural affinities, which has led each of the countries in the region to reach relatively unique levels of development.

The CDMP has sought to overcome the complexity of working on the broad mission of natural disaster mitigation in such a heterogeneous and far-flung region by establishing a framework for institutional collaboration which facilitates the coordination of existing local, national and international public and private capacity in disaster mitigation. The CDMP framework establishes two primary levels of collaboration: at the regional level, and another at the national level.

At the regional level of collaboration, the project has established a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) which meets regularly to provide policy guidance and to periodically review the project's work plan. This committee includes representatives from CARICOM, CDERA, RHUDO, OFDA, the USAID Missions in the region, the OAS, and the last coordinator of the PCDPPP. Hence, the TAC serves as a forum for establishing region-wide international collaboration in technical assistance in hazard mitigation. The collaborative relationship between the OAS and USAID is expressed through the implementation of measures agreed upon by the TAC at the level of the OAS/DRDE and the USAID OFDA, and through their respective in-country missions. While this relationship enables regional coordination of national activities, it is particularly well suited to establishing programs that are specifically regional in their scale and scope. Examples include the development of a Regional Storm Hazard model and the establishment of Regional Insurance Hazard Risk Database. These and other similar project activities take advantage of the economy of scales that can be achieved when individuals and groups within a region can pool their resources to address mutual concerns. Additionally, the regional approach lends itself to the establishment of a regional cadre of expertise in natural disaster mitigation, which can be called upon through the region to address issues on a case-by-case basis.

The OAS/CDMP has established a regional field office located in Jamaica, which is responsible for coordinating and monitoring project activities, and administering national activity review and training workshops. The field office also collaborates with the Regional Training Program (RNTP) of USAID's Regional Housing and Urban Development Office for the Caribbean (RHUDO/CAR) and regional educational institutions.

At the level of national entities, the OAS/CDMP attempts to establish Technical Working Groups, and National Planning and Advisory Committees. For example, in Jamaica, the Board of Directors of Office of Disaster Preparedness (ODP) was designated as an Advisory Committee to the CDMP in Jamaica. The main purpose of the Advisory Committee is to ensure appropriate compatibility and coordination of the CDMP activities with the national disaster policy and programs. With respect to the Storm Hazard Mapping Project, the CDMP also has established a Technical Working Group (TWG) composed of agencies with a direct interest in and technical capacity for natural hazard assessment work. The TWG has been led by the Unit of Disaster Studies, Department of Geology of the University of West Indies, and has been composed of the Geological Survey Division, the Department of Lands and Surveys, and the Underground Water Authority. Meetings were held with the Land Information Council to ensure proper interagency coordination. As activities progress and specific applications are developed, the TWG composition will be expanded to include other specialized agencies such as the Meteorological Institute and the Town Planning Agency, and hazard information users such as the Jamaica Association of General Insurance Companies (JAGIC).

In other OAS member states, the CDMP is implementing similar approaches to national level collaboration, in the context of specific project activities. These activities can be designed to scale-up successful local projects to the national level, or to re-create successful national pilot programs in other nations. For example, in St. Lucia and Dominica, the Informal Housing Retrofit and Safe Construction Project is establishing National Planning Advisory Committees. In the Dominican Republic, the Community Disaster Preparedness Project has established an advisory committee, chaired by an NGO-based secretariat. In each case committees that are composed of representatives from private and public sector institutions direct the projects.


The Caribbean Disaster Mitigation Project (CDMP) is operational. The CDMP strategy focuses on major issues in the disaster/sustainable development linkage in the Caribbean. As designed by the USAID Office of Housing and Urban Programs, and funded by the USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, the project seeks to address problems of disaster management endemic to the region by promoting self-sustaining disaster mitigation practices in the development process, with an emphasis on involving private and non-governmental groups. As implemented by the OAS Department of Regional Development and Environment, the project provides a vehicle for training and information dissemination that assists development decision-making by key actors, and facilitates regional cooperation, through the establishment of collaborative institutional relationships, technology transfer initiatives and the sharing of existing resources. The active participation of local, national and international institutions in project activity design and implementation is seen as the basis for sustainability beyond the project lifetime.

CDMP home page: Project Contacts Page Last Updated: 20 April 2001