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Who is a refugee?


Hurricane Katrina, gave a new meaning to the word ‘refugee’. The word was used extensively by the media to refer to the thousands of persons who had to leave their home to seek shelter outside the hurricane’s projected path and especially those who sheltered in the Louisiana Superdome, a giant multipurpose sports and exhibition facility, located in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The use of the word ‘refugee’ shocked persons around the world and caused a public outcry in the United States. The media immediately retracted and replaced it with the word ‘evacuee’. This word is not unfamiliar to Vincentians because it was used when persons living in villages below and around La Soufriere volcano had to flee from the area as a result of the eruption in 1979. {{more}}

The word ‘refugee’ has been used by the United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to describe “persons who are outside their country and cannot return owing to a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group”. The UNHCR has undertaken to protect refugees. It encourages governments to grant asylum to refugees until it is safe for them to return home. There are also persons who have left their homes for the same reason but have not crossed any international border. These are called “internally displaced people.” We heard recently that some Vincentians had filed for refugee status in Canada, but although they are outside their country they may not be able to prove that there is a fear of persecution if they return home.

Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

Katrina has been an eye opener for everyone because of the human losses and suffering, especially among the poor, the sick and the incapacitated. The approach of the storm was announced a few days before it made landfall and thousands of persons who had vehicles left the area. Mandatory evacuation was ordered but there was no official policy for the transportation of the poor out of the danger areas. The Superdome was opened for their occupation. This brings us to the major issue.

How much do we know ourselves? Are designated shelters capable of offering a safe place to those who have to flee from their homes? The Superdome was built to withstand a Category 3 hurricane, a Category 5 hurricane was forecasted, yet persons were allowed to shelter in it. New Orleans escaped the full force of the Category 4 hurricane that eventually made landfall. The Superdome, the shelter for more than 20,000 persons, was damaged.

The worst damage to New Orleans came after the hurricane. New Orleans is a city below sea level. The waters of Lake Pontchartrain are kept out by levees or man made structures. Forecasters feared that the walls would be breached and New Orleans could fill up like a bowl. The walls could only withstand a Category 3 hurricane. The levees were breached and everyone was unprepared for this.

The lessons that we have learnt from New Orleans are that we should know our weaknesses and correct them long before a hurricane. Where areas are liable to be flooded, mandatory evacuation must be imposed and designated shelters must be strong enough to withstand a category five (over155 mph.) hurricane.