It is turning out to be a nightmare of a year for some of our Caribbean neighbours who now face an uphill struggle trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, following what undoubtedly has been one of the most active hurricane seasons in recent years.
In the past fortnight, the frightening fury of nature, aggravated by rising sea temperatures associated with climate change, has been unleashed on our region in the form of two top strength Category 5 hurricanes. Irma and now Maria, which is making its way across the region, have left a trail of death and destruction. “September, remember”, says a line of an old rhyme which has sensitized generations of Caribbean residents to the importance of hurricane preparedness. Just as many Barbadians still have vivid memories of Hurricane Janet which devastated this island in September 1955, September 2017 will be similarly remembered by our neighbours who experienced the wrath of the two systems.
Last night, a little over a week after Irma devastated the Antigua sister island of Barbuda, Anguilla, the British and United States Virgin Islands, French and Dutch St Martin, parts of Haiti, Cuba and Florida before eventually petering out, Maria bore down on Dominica. Information which has so far emerged paints a picture of utter destruction, representing a major setback for the island’s development efforts.
As Maria’s more than 150 mile per hour winds pummeled the mountainous island which has had more than its fair share of natural disasters in the past three decades, going back to Hurricane David in 1979, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit took to social media to issue an appeal to the international community to come to Dominica’s assistance.
“So far, we have lost all of what money can buy and replace,” he said in a Facebook post.
Guadeloupe, Dominica’s French-speaking neighbour, was hit next. Montserrat and Barbuda were in the system’s path and St Kitts and Nevis, which escaped Irma’s rampage, were today bracing for Maria’s arrival on a day, ironically, when official celebrations were planned to mark the twin island federation’s 34th anniversary of Independence.
It will take billions of dollars to replace vital infrastructure destroyed across the region in the past fortnight.
Fortunately for us here in Barbados, we have escaped relatively unscathed so far this season which still has another two months to go. However, the recent experience of our neighbours should cause us to take the need for hurricane preparedness much more seriously. The fact that we have not experienced a full blown hurricane since 1955 should not cause us to fool ourselves that God is a Bajan, as some are inclined to say.
Given the scale of the destruction and the limited resources available in the region, Caribbean governments should make a case to the international community and their financial institutions for a kind of Marshall plan to support the region’s reconstruction, for it is the industrialized countries, not the Caribbean, which are largely responsible for climate change. Secondly, it would be a way of giving back to the region as much of the wealth enjoyed by First World countries came from exploitation of the Caribbean during the colonial era.
Debt forgiveness definitely should be included in the package to ease the burden off financially-strapped national governments. The Caribbean reconstruction plan ideally should be the subject of an international donors conference which should be convened at the earliest opportunity.
Meantime, we who have been spared should generously assist within our available means as an expression of good neighbourliness and out of gratitude for being spared. Charity always must begin at home.
Given the increasing severity of hurricanes in the Caribbean, the challenge to our engineers and architects in particular is to come up with solutions that would allow homes, public buildings and other key infrastructure to be able to more effectively withstand persistent battering by extremely high winds. It is no secret that many buildings in the region still are poorly constructed; hence their vulnerability to hurricanes and other disasters.
The Caribbean is a predominantly Christian society but the painful experiences of disasters often cause victims to question their faith and indeed ask where was God. Comfort can come from knowing that others before, like the ancient Jews, went through similar experiences and bounced back.
The words of Psalm 46 are therefore most appropriate: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear….”