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Behind the disaster estimates are real people

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Last year alone, natural disasters caused damage estimated at $97.9 million in St Vincent and the Grenadines.

Most of this damage occurred in the three-month period between September and November, when this country experienced a series of significant rainfall events, beginning with the passage of Hurricane Matthew in September 2016 and culminating with the passage of two trough systems on November 9 and 29, 2016.

The 2017 hurricane season ended last Thursday, and while we came through relatively unscathed, we know very well, from the Christmas floods of 2013 and the April floods of 2011, that adverse weather events strike in and out of season.

A report from the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries European Union (EU) Natural Disaster Risk Reduction (NDRR) programme said that in 2016, as a result of the intense rainfall, numerous landslides were triggered, resulting in significant damage to natural road infrastructure, while flash floods (several of which were associated with debris flows), damaged bridges and private property, with particularly devastating impact to lower income communities.

One such lower income community is Sandy Bay, where one year after the November 29 trough system, many families are still struggling to put their lives back together (see story on page 5). Some homes were completely destroyed and others, while still standing, are uninhabitable. The road network there took quite a beating and the after effects of the weather system are still quite apparent everywhere you look.

At a recent press conference, Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves said the total estimated cost of last year’s disasters represents 49.5 per cent of the 2016 capital budget and 10.7 per cent of the overall budget. Sometimes when we discuss the impact of natural disasters on a country and express the extent of the damage in millions of dollars or the percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) or the overall budget, the impact on the lives of individuals is masked.

Behind those percentages and dollar signs are real flesh and blood people, whose lives were turned upside down and remain significantly disrupted long after they and their situations have faded from the minds of those who rushed to provide relief supplies in the immediate aftermath.

There remain many people in similar situations, not just in Sandy Bay, but all over the country in communities that were impacted by the extreme weather conditions we have been experiencing for the last 10 years or so. The majority of these people have no homeowners insurance or nest eggs and are almost totally dependent for relief on the Government, which also has the responsibility to rebuild the roads, bridges, retaining walls and other infrastructure damaged over the years, while at the same time fulfilling its other responsibilities.

These repeated strikes from extreme weather events take us three steps back for every two steps we move forward developmentally. Clearly, collective international action is needed to cool down the planet and reduce the effects of climate change. But until then, our choices are clear: secure our properties through strict enforcement of building codes and restricting the areas where people are allowed to build. Prevention is the only way to go.

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