Residing in the Caribbean and enjoying the privilege of year-round sunshine and generally good weather are often compared with living in paradise. Little wonder countless thousands residing in the more prosperous developed countries of the North, especially those that experience biting cold winters, would not think twice about trading places if presented with the opportunity.
Living in the Caribbean, however, does have its downsides, and a major one is the unavoidable exposure to the risk of natural disasters, especially hurricanes. These fierce and occasionally deadly weather systems develop off the African coast, making their way across the Atlantic Ocean into our region every year between June and November. This six-month period, known as the Atlantic hurricane season, officially began yesterday.
This year, by the way, marks 60 years since Barbados took a direct hit from a hurricane. On September 22, 1955, Hurricane Janet, a Category 3 system, barrelled through the island, killing 38 people, leaving 2,000 homeless, and causing an estimated $5 million in property damage. Janet, which had strengthened rapidly on its approach to the island, caught Barbadians by surprise. The country was largely unprepared. It was the worst hurricane for that season.
The fact that Barbados has not come face to face with a hurricane in 60 years means two generations have grown up without personal experience of what being in one is like, except for the frightening images in the media, or stories told by relatives and friends living in other Caribbean countries which have not been as fortunate. As a result, there is an understandable tendency among Barbadians to show complacency, which has not escaped the attention of disaster management authorities.
Speaking at a news conference to coincide with the start of the 2015 hurricane season, forecast to be one with below normal activity just like last year, acting director of the Department of Emergency Management (DEM), Ms Kerry Hinds, appealed to Barbadians “not to be complacent, as one event making landfall can seriously disrupt life in Barbados, causing damage, displacement and significant downtime, which would have a crippling effect on our economy”. That is why it is critical, she said, to adopt “a comprehensive approach to the management and the effects of these hazards on our country”.
It is in this attitude of complacency that our greatest vulnerability probably lies. Some Barbadians seem so convinced that a hurricane is unlikely to hit the island that they fail to take warnings seriously, ignore pleas to achieve a high level of preparedness and even justify their actions by claiming God is a Bajan, meaning He will look out for us and protect us. God is a Bajan, yes, but He belongs at the same time to the whole universe, allowing other nations to make a similar claim.
What basically has worked for us in the past 60 years is luck –– yes, good old luck –– which happens unfortunately to run out at some point.
Will we be prepared when this happens, or will we be caught with our pants down? We take this opportunity, at the start of the 2015 hurricane season, to endorse the appeal by disaster management officials for Barbadians to be prepared. Heed, instead of dismiss, the tips and warnings given by the authorities.
The Met Office cannot accurately predict the precise behaviour of a weather system every time, especially when it happens to be as erratic as hurricanes can be.
Instead of denouncing our weathermen and weatherwomen, we should be grateful for their devotion to public service. We pray that Lady Luck will continue to smile favourably on us and that Barbados will once again be spared, especially at this time when the economy is in such bad shape and struggling to recover.
A hit by a hurricane, or any other natural disaster for that matter, could have devastating consequences and set back our national development by several years. So, while we hope for the best, it is still wise to prepare for the worst.
Preparedness is not an insurance policy against disaster. If it is to happen, it will. The benefit of preparedness, however, is that we will know with some measure of confidence what we will have to do when disaster strikes, instead of having to react in a knee-jerk fashion, stricken by panic, and only making matters worse.
Whatever the circumstances, it is always better to play it safe than to be sorry.