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Post Tomas reflections

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Like many other Vincentians, Tomas’ assault on our homeland took me completely by surprise. I went to sleep after midnight on Friday, October 29, expecting nothing more than a weekend of heavy rains. Any thought of a hurricane was far from my mind. Something went wrong somewhere, although I am not sure what really went wrong. {{more}}I did not check the news or listen to the radio that afternoon/evening so I am not sure what announcements were made or not made. On Saturday morning I awoke to the startling news that a hurricane was roving nearby and was likely to hit St.Vincent. I drove into town about 8:30 in an effort to secure some bottled water and realised then that there were other persons not aware of the news that a hurricane was approaching the island. One woman was relaxing outside C.K Greaves Kingstown, with quite a lot of plantains for sale. Others had come to town prepared to undertake the weekly or daily sales of their produce. On the other hand, many who had heard the news were busy getting supplies. At the area of Cane Garden where I live, I only began to experience strong winds from about 2 pm. And even then I had the luxury of sitting in my porch looking at the trees dancing in the wind, and even eating a meal. A bit later, I was forced to move my chairs inside. All of this is to make the point that there was little preparation on my part.

I reflected a bit on our national hurricane plan and realised that I knew nothing about it. Of course, there are certain basic things I know that will apply to everyone wherever they lived. I am sure NEMO must have had programmes prior to the hurricane, spelling out elements of their hurricane plan, but I must confess to being ignorant about them. During the passage of Tomas, I listened to callers to the radio stations describing what was happening in their areas. I was in touch with persons outside of the country by email and texts and was aware that St.Lucia was getting a terrible lashing. In St.Vincent we have to consider ourselves extremely lucky. Apart from the fact that the hurricane was a level 1 category hurricane, we did not have the amount of rainfall that was expected. We suffered from winds more than anything else. This is not to deny the horrors of persons who had lost their roofs and whose belongings would have been exposed to the rains that came. I make the point, however, about the absence of really heavy rains because there was relatively little damage to infrastructure. St.Lucia on the other hand suffered from landslides with broken bridges, streets badly damaged and parts of the country being cut off from other areas.

As one would expect, there were two elements to the disaster. First would have been persons whose homes were damaged and destroyed and needed to have urgent attention. Then of major importance, too, would have been the damage to our agriculture, particularly to the banana industry. Bananas had before this been seriously challenged. What Tomas did was to further cripple the industry. While we can look at repairs to buildings as being of urgent necessity, it also has to be realised that some banana farmers who might not have had damaged homes depend largely on proceeds from their weekly sales to look after their affairs, including in many cases sending their children to school.

I am worried about the many calls I have heard on radio suggesting the politicisation of the disaster. This is a serious matter because one thing that disasters do is to bring people together. We are in the midst of the silly season where many persons are fighting for their political survival. It would appear that in such situations anything goes. What is alarming is the fear that if a disaster cannot bring us together, but instead further divides us, then nothing else would be able to bring us together as a people, except perhaps a greater disaster which I am sure none of us wants. I have heard of persons from NEMO being sent on leave at this time during the hurricane season when all hands should be on board. If this is so, then clearly these people are dispensable and should not have been there in the first place. Vincentians should really show their revulsion to any efforts at restoration that are guided by naked politics regardless of the quarter from which they come.

The other issue that I want to return to is that of the hurricane plan. What has happened in St.Lucia where Soufriere was cut off and some areas could only be reached by water has reopened one of my concerns. Is our hurricane plan or rather disaster plan decentralised? This is extremely important because in the event that any area of our country is cut off from the rest of the country there must be people in the areas that are isolated who are aware of what needs to be done and who will have the means to do what needs to be done. Is there sufficiency in food? What of communication? Who are the supposed actors, hopefully not political ones!

So we have been affected though not as seriously as some of us had feared. This, of course, is with the exception of the banana industry on which people in different parts of the country depend significantly. No longer would some of us hold the stupid thought that we are somewhat specially blessed because we had for long been spared the effects of any major disaster. What we need to do is to begin to identify the lessons that have to be learnt if we are to cope with any major disaster. I have given up hope of any serious consideration of this matter at this time. But it is something that needs to be done. Another matter demanding serious consideration is one posed by Norman Girvan, “Are Caribbean Countries facing Existential Threats?” This I hope to comment on later.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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