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We have no choice but to pick up the pieces

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My heart goes out to all those who have suffered as a result of our latest natural disaster, our long-suffering farmers, those in banana in particular.

Just when we were all but sure that we had escaped another hurricane season unscathed, Hurricane Tomas gave us a rude awakening. No, we are not out of the hurricane belt or so “blessed”, as we are wont to deceive ourselves, that we cannot be hit by a hurricane. My own guess is that we were perhaps even less prepared last Friday for a storm, than we were at the beginning of the annual “season of dread”, in June.{{more}} With each passing month our complacency increased, fuelled by such backward thoughts as the idea that Haiti’s continued susceptibility to natural disasters has something to do with its alleged “sins”, voodoo included. “Not “blessed” SVG, we tried to convince ourselves. “Welcome to the Club, SVG”.

However there is an old saying that “it is an ill wind which blows nobody good”. Out of our hurricane-inflicted suffering, we are bound to develop a much deeper appreciation of our own vulnerability. We are sure to pay more heed to warnings and the need for preparation. The reality is that we live in the hurricane belt and each year must prepare for the worst. By now that should be routine, but for one reason or another we seem to like to live on the edge, and complain afterwards.

As we say our thanks to the Most High for our survival, we can only but reflect that in spite of the serious damage, things could have been much worse. What if Tomas had been a Category 4 or 5 hurricane? We will also have some satisfaction in that the Vincentian tendency towards constant improvement of our housing stock makes us better able to withstand ravages such as those wrought by Tomas. At the same time, we must consider the losses and destruction, not on an individual level, but as losses accruing to the nation as a whole with a collective responsibility to repair the damage.

Now we are left to assess the full extent of the destruction and to pick up the pieces. Those whose homes have been rendered unfit for habitation must be re-housed and assisted to put their lives back together again. Physical infrastructure must be repaired and public utilities restored to their functioning levels. In all of this, however, we must spare a special thought for the state of our local food sector. As I write, a comprehensive assessment of the damage to the agricultural and fishing sectors could not yet have been made, though from all reports it is reasonable to believe that it is substantial. That goes for our sister islands of St. Lucia and Barbados as well.

We have recently observed World Food Day with statistics demonstrating our rapidly growing dependence on extra-regional sources for food. The ravages of Tomas will only exacerbate this situation. We are right on the door-step of Christmas, traditionally a time of increased demand, how can we manage? That situation calls for urgent action. Depending on the scale of the destruction, there may be appeals for food aid, but this is but a temporary and emergency solution. The more sensible response is to use the opportunity to put our entire agriculture and fishing industries on a more secure and sustainable footing.

It must be borne in mind that in the case of farming and fishing families and communities, it is a case of LIVELIHOODS. When a farm has been ravaged or a fishing boat lost, the ability of that farming and fishing family to take care of its own needs is severely restricted, if not wiped out entirely. If you take our battered banana industry for instance, it means that those who have had total or very substantial losses, end up like workers who have lost their jobs. There is no income forthcoming, but bills are still there to be paid and mouths to be fed. These must be borne in mind in any rehabilitation or reconstruction programme.

One must also be gender-sensitive in our approach to these matters. Our reality is that single-parent households mostly headed by women are prominent in the rural communities. That reality must underpin our approaches to deal with the situation, a weakness that we have displayed time and again. It means that in both the relief and reconstruction efforts, it is of paramount importance that the active participation of those affected, and their organizations must become central to the effort. Whether it is community organizations, or organizations of fisherfolk and farmers, charting a way forward is impossible without their input and participation, from conception to implementation. We must learn our lessons from the past and seek not only to avoid them but to improve significantly in the manner in which we tackle such crises.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.