Monday, 1 November 2010

Aftermath of Hurricane Tomas

Hurricane Tomas has just passed this region, and after having weakened, is projected to regain strength as it moves towards Haiti. From all reports, St. Lucia seems to have been the worst hit in the Eastern Caribbean, and the below video contains some footage of the damage. Many are missing, 14 have been confirmed dead; the destroyed roads and bridges and damaged hospitals mean that transportation and access to basic services are compromised. In terms of the scale of disaster, and compared with some of those we have heard even in recent weeks, this may seem less severe. But in a country the size of St. Lucia, these effects are not insignificant. The entire country is affected and all State resources have to be mobilized in recovery. Aid from other countries is key.

One hesitates to utter the name Haiti in the context of another natural disaster, but communities there are right now bracing for a potential hit from the hurricane; this in the midst of a cholera epidemic and the continued insecurity of tent dwellings which offer no protection from strong winds and rains. Calls to evacuate seem redundant.

I say all this for one reason: perspective. This past weekend was an uncomfortable one. There was a point when the winds reached their highest at which you realized that you were dealing, after all, with a system of nature - there were no guarantees; anything could happen. We had some damage and several people have been displaced as a result. Following the coverage on television, it was difficult to watch the helplessness and disbelief of some people who had lost homes and important possessions: farmers who lost the livestock or crops on which their livelihoods depend; parents with no idea where their children would sleep that night.

But there is helplessness and vulnerability, and then there is discomfort. Losing your home or livelihood makes one vulnerable. It's a significant loss. Losing electricity and water temporarily are uncomfortable; perhaps beyond uncomfortable if there are essential medicines that need to be refrigerated, or if one has small children. But I feel like we need to understand the concept of 'worst-case scenario' here. I was never one to go in for the Olympics of Suffering: it is all relative. I'm not going to tell someone who has lost two limbs to count their blessings because they might have lost three, because where would it end? Things could always be worse. Quite literally, always. That fact doesn't make the current situation any less of a challenge. But yelling and throwing tantrums because you've lost your cable and internet access are a little beyond the pale, I think. This is not to scold, just to encourage us to have some appreciation of what disaster actually and potentially means. It means that while we expect a certain level of service and response in the best of times, a sense of entitlement does not really fit the context of hurricane aftermath. It is the reason airlines promise nothing when bad weather hits. There is the understanding that even as the State, public-private and private sector companies have a responsibility to those they serve to mitigate disaster and provide relief, these very services are often themselves challenged and their resources diminished after this type of event. While making our concerns clear, we should respect and understand that - bearing in mind that the hurricane may very well have levelled the offices of the public utilities buildings. And who would we be yelling at then?

Still, I think the yellers are few, and even then, one understands the place of frustration from where it might be coming. In general, though, we've been putting our heads down and getting on with the repair in our groups and communities. Looking ahead, we will have to extend that approach to St. Vincent and St. Lucia, and, wherever the hurricane leads, continue to support Haiti in their recovery.

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