The word “catastrophe” has many meanings, depending on how one interprets a misfortune, which could be the occurrence of a hazard, or a marine, aviation or vehicular accident.
If it is used to describe the effects of a fire destroying a home, in the case of a family surviving, then it is a personal catastrophe. If it is used in reference to a multiple vehicle traffic accident resulting in death to the passengers, onlookers will most likely describe it as a catastrophe. If a multi-storeyed building collapses and lives are lost, to the responders on the scene, it is a catastrophe.
Any sudden widespread event resulting in multiple injuries and or loss of life; the financial collapse of a major business resulting in significant job loss; the impact of Hurricanes Katrina, Hugo, Sandy, and the effects of earthquakes in Haiti, Japan, New Zealand and Nepal can all be described as catastrophes. Ironically, what may be described, as a catastrophe for one may in fact not be considered such when viewed by another not affected by whatever was seen as the cause of the event.
It is September 6, 2004, about 11 p.m., and what was seen optimistically as a tropical wave the week before is now a major hurricane, with the Lesser Antilles in its line of sight. Barring a miracle, Barbados, Grenada, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Dominica all prepared for what is going to a very stressful week.
Not since Hurricane Janet, in 1955, has Barbados prepared for the full impact of a major hurricane. The many near misses since Janet would pale in comparison with what is being projected as its possible effects on the.
To many it is seen as something that is as inevitable as the occurrence of a flood from a heavy rainfall, and therefore they continued with their plans for the system’s arrival.
The system was called Hurricane Ivan and it would visit Barbados first. Ivan was now a Category 3 hurricane slowly becoming more intense as it reached warm waters. To some others, scepticism overshadowed acceptance of the facts presented, and therefore the need for preparing was not
a high priority.
Six hours later, scepticism would be replaced with islandwide power loss, and the discomfort of blocked roads, fallen trees, flooded shorelines, almost totally interrupted communication systems, and the destruction or damage, by the winds, of several hundred houses either destroyed or severely damaged
by the winds from the night before.
In the hours that followed, as Ivan changed course and passed to the south-west of the island, the island was once more spared the brunt of a Category 3 hurricane. And even with its lessened effects, Barbados would not escape unscathed.
As damage assessment compiled reports would reveal, critical infrastructure would have survived with limited damages to some buildings, roads. Power would be quickly restored, as the majority of the country’s electrical grid would escape with little or moderate nationwide damage to its power plant. Water and other essential services would be restored with only isolated communities experiencing delays as electrical poles would have to be replaced and housing connections made.
Damage to houses in communities of the lower income bracket would be noticeable. It had long been suggested by community activists, and private structural engineers, that without comprehensive retrofitting, many houses in lower income communities would not be able to survive the impact of a major hurricane. This often discounted opinion would prove to be a traumatic reality for over 500 houses all across the Barbados Many would need either major repairs or complete reconstruction.
In some cases, insurance and preparedness would allow homeowners to rebuild without the help of Government assistance; but for many more, the need to turn to Government would precipitate the introduction of the Government’s first major disaster housing recovery programme
in over 40 years.
No recorded hurricane impact since Janet would make such a programme a major priority for emergency management officials in Barbados. For what many would later describe as a near miss, the statistical reports would be startling, as over 700 reports would have to be assessed before any determination could be made regarding who would quality for Government assistance.
In the interim, national volunteer organizations such as the Red Cross would begin immediate community assistance programmes to many families reporting severe housing damage.
In the years that followed, after repairs and reconstruction completed at a cost to the Government of over $4.5 million, Barbados would experience other near misses, most notably Tropical Storm Tomas in 2010. This event would again result in similar damage reports to the lower income-housing group.
However, houses that had escaped the fury of the Ivan near miss would ironically also record damages to their roofs. The cause of the damage would now be attributed to the fact no roof inspection had been conducted after the passing of Ivan, as many homeowners had assumed that no prior visual damage impact meant the roof had remained intact.
Private consulting engineers would state that complacency was again running rampant in the country, and sooner rather than later, the direct path of the next Category 3 would leave a different result behind. Critics have said that not much has changed since the passing of Hurricane Ivan and Tropical Storm Tomas.
Many Barbadians still hold on to the belief that God will always protect Barbados, and that “God is a Bajan”. Critics have also said that even with the near misses of storms and hurricanes, the structural strength of the housing stock, built between 1970 and 2000 in the island, remained relatively the same. They say that as new housing communities are developed and families relocate, the older residential communities remain relatively unchanged.
The factual reality of devastation from another Ivan remains an inevitability, which many refuse to face even as the 2015 hurricane season approaches its second month.
Old habits are hard to break, just as complacency is still a constant. Can preparedness complacency in a community be reduced? Can disaster preparedness awareness be encouraged? Is change possible?
The answer to these questions is yes. However, it takes motivation and a collective determination within the entire community to effect and maintain change. Death and destruction should not be the only reason why complacency as a social behaviour could be reduced within a community. The experiences of others who have lived through catastrophic events can also be used as motivators for others.
But reducing community complacency also requires the involvement of the Government, which many often criticize, saying that unless there are visible political rewards from participation, governments seem laid-back as their own personal agendas take priority over the needs of the communities –– until another Ivan comes knocking.