Post 343.

Our current problems, from last week’s heatwave to this week’s flooding, are created by us – globally, regionally and nationally. Hurricanes and flooding are natural processes in our part of the hemisphere. Even with the expected increase in storms, it is poor land planning and development which really put us at risk.

The solution to this is public vigilance. We must pull ourselves together to insist on the information and power needed for our new reality. Citizens have to start developing an expertise on their watershed: where the rivers flow, how to prevent garbage clogging them, what settlements are planned, what inequalities exist, and how to reduce neighbourhood footprint. It’s like every community and local government needs an environmental impact assessment to operate from a plan.

I think of how no one cared when the mangroves were razed for Movietowne, but when the ocean washes over it all, we will act surprised. Or maybe, we can wake up and insist on changing what we can now.

I think of when activists stage sit-ins in the EMA to get social and environmental impact analyses, and people call them crazy. Every one of us should be insisting on those analyses for housing settlements and highways, for when the impacts hit us, does it help to hold our heads and bawl?

The area by Grand Bazaar flooded exactly as expected. If the engineers knew this, why didn’t we? Greenvale was always going to flood. Town and Country planners told the PM so when he was Minister of Housing, and he went ahead because regulatory agencies and people’s lives be damned.

There’s a reason why people used to build their houses on stilts through the Caroni plains. This should have been insisted on for all housing developments, and would have spared ordinary, hard-working people endless loss. It should be insisted on now.

The loss from floods is only part natural disaster, the other part is wholly man-made. It’s convenient when we can cut whichever hillside we want or fill in whatever watercourse or throw away a stove in the river or build our house where and however we choose. It’s agony when our folly comes back to us. We are being told to pay attention. Take responsibility.

Forget whether the Prime Minister wades through water in his boots, it’s not the political leadership we should be looking to for empathy and compensation. Rowley or whoever replaces him is irrelevant. Instead, we have to take ownership of the institutions and regulations meant to protect us.

We’ve been inattentive for too long because we can’t be bothered with rules or stopping corruption when it’s our friends or mobilizing across race and party. Institutions that tell us what we can and can’t do to land and watercourses are treated as an inconvenience to be ignored.

While the terrible devastation of people’s homes, cars and livelihoods grabs headlines and hearts, we have to use this moment to demand a different kind of news and public life even after rainy, and hurricane, season passes.

In her Tedx speech last year, Greta Thunberg makes the point that, though the climate is in crisis, we hardly hear anything about it in the press and from political and economic leaders.

If it mattered, if it was understood to be a war against all living species, our countries and our children, from a global economy driven by consumption, growth and fossil extraction, the solutions would dominate all our news.

They would dominate every political platform in every election with parties competing to convince voters they have the most commitment to the best plan for both preventing and addressing climate-related disasters. Will that happen? Only if we demand it.

What we need is a news cycle that doesn’t focus on the crisis, but on prevention and protection, making them the most important story of our time. Citizen oversight of land use planning, new housing specifications, the start of national recycling collection, a near ban on plastic or insistence on the polluter pays principle for importers and producers, a demand for clean, drinkable water as a public right, replanting of mangroves, and more. Our public institutions should be flooded by citizens wanting oversight and say over the plans and the books.

All of this is possible, making the man-made part of our crises preventable. If hope is what we think we need to weather this new normal, Thunberg says, “The one thing we need more than hope is action…once we start to act, hope is everywhere”.

Post 341.

The impact of devastation in the Bahamas gets more disturbing as the days wear on. I’ve moved from fear for our Caribbean neighbours while watching the storm crawl over the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama to horror and sadness at what’s left of people’s lives.

Hope lies in all the immediate assistance with supplies for survival, but reading back to Dominica, Barbuda and Puerto Rico suggests that recovery will take far longer than our attention may sustain.

This is one of the challenges of disaster recovery, despite road maps for long-term response. All the Caribbean countries decimated by hurricanes in the past three years have families who remain living under tarpaulin, areas with long-term loss of electricity, risks from water contamination, and aid dependence. Grenada recovered from Ivan in 2004, but sits in the Caribbean Sea just as vulnerable as it was then.

Whole economies are reduced to zero GDP virtually overnight. New lives are made on loss more endured than overcome, particularly for those unable to migrate. And, Caribbean nations are falling under unimaginably catastrophic storms one by one.

Even resilience systems may not sufficiently help in the face of unprecedented storm surges that do worse damage than category 5 winds. In some countries, there may be too few safe places for everyone to shelter, and even if more people survive because of better information, structural construction, evacuation and preparedness, where would they go when their homes and communities are destroyed?

At a global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees, the viability of the region is questionable. The region will become increasingly unlivable, and more ungovernable as suffering fuels insecurity and crime.

This is partly what happened in Venezuela which experienced huge declines in rainfall which starved hydroelectric power generators, leading to industry and agriculture collapse, blackouts, malnutrition, insecurity and exodus by millions.

On the other hand, in our lifetimes, we can expect heavy rainfall in Trinidad to flood everything between the Northern and Central Ranges.

In the Caribbean, there are already increases in air and water temperatures, daily intensity of rainfall, droughts, hurricanes and rising sea levels. All are expected to become more severe with hurricane wind speeds alone projected to increase by 2-11 per cent and mean sea level rise projected to be up by 1.4 metres (Taylor and Clarke et al. 2018).

We will pass an increase of 1.5 degrees given that no world patterns of consuming fossil fuels and producing carbon dioxide have changed. TT, Guyana and Suriname’s dependence on oil and gas contributes to such projected demise.

After these hurricanes, we’ve scrambled to share immediate relief. Longer term, activists have been pushing for a better response to climate change’s distinct harms to women and children, the disabled, elderly and migrants, but there will be a time when some of our region’s islands will simply produce refugees. What is our plan for this reality?

It’s more than investing in micro-electric grids, home-based water filtration systems and resilient homes. There isn’t a single serious plan across the anglophone region for the kind of projected conditions that Bahamian Angelique Nixon, in Guyana’s Stabroek News, rightly calls “apocalypse now”: a terror which we hope will just pass us by at this time every year.

TT’s Vision 2030 reads like a fairytale, almost a pretence that none of this matters for housing settlements, agricultural planning, mangrove protection, carbon neutrality or governance. Looking for a realistic strategy regarding climate change across Caricom is just as worrying as the destruction of Dominica, Barbuda, Puerto Rico, and to a lesser extent Cuba and Jamaica, becomes heart-breaking.

Nonetheless, for immediate assistance, Angelique Nixon is co-ordinating “a Relief Drive for The Bahamas supporting three women-led grassroots organisations on the ground – Lend A Hand Bahamas (https://www.lendahandbahamas.org/ & Facebook #lendahand242), Equality Bahamas (Facebook @equality242), and Human Rights Bahamas (Facebook @gbhra242).

“The core organisers here in Trinidad are UWI Institute for Gender and Development Studies, Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Network of NGOs of TT for the Advancement of Women, and the Emancipation Support Committee TT.

“Please donate relief items, such as adult and baby hygiene products, including soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, female sanitary items, adult and baby diapers, women’s underwear, baby formula and food, cleansing wipes, and non-perishable foods, which can be dropped off at any of those organisations’ headquarters.” Contact her via Whatsapp at 868-732-3543.

Long-term, however, think of supporting schools with books and supplies in a year’s time when recovery is less on media’s radar, and by strengthening Caribbean outrage and action against this predicted future.

Post 306.

I called Miss Pinky to ask how she was and this time she wasn’t in tears. Her washing machine was lost after floods last year, and with help she recovered. This year, the new one was lost, along with her fridge and stove. Next door, her children and grandchildren “lost everything”, a phrase that is now so common across the country, despite remaining so surreal.

Compassion, care and help will be needed for months, for whole communities have been devastated, whole areas of small enterprise and home-based businesses lost, and thousands left traumatized.

I thought of Miss Pinky because she’s retired. Though she worked as a cleaner for decades at UWI, from just this month, she’s no longer here. As the university collected its list of staff and students affected, I thought about senior citizens and their additional vulnerabilities, their health complications, their economic insecurity and how much they will have to rely on their children for their recovery, if their children are able to provide.

When I called, Miss Pinky was using a hair dryer to try to dry out and fix her stove. She was by friends because her doctor advised her against staying surrounded by water where she could get an infection. They had been provided with food. I wondered at her resilient positivity, at her shock, at the fact that she was focusing on the immediate, rather than the full flood of tears that was she was absorbing after such a setback.

There’s a lot to say about the immediate crisis intervention, but we should also focus our attention on the state’s coordination of a longer social response. People have to leave their damaged possessions in their yards as proof of their suffering, but this only furthers their sense of trauma and inability to move on with recovery as they wait for local government representatives to arrive.

If your documents are destroyed or lost, you can go to Richmond St. to have them re-issued, but this should be coordinated through the regional corporations so that you are not waiting for state officials to come to your house at the same time as having to go to the health centre to get antibiotics or anything else needed while finding someone to take you to PoS as your muddied vehicle is no longer working and then waiting there amidst hundreds of others with the same plight all while managing despair and PTSD without a counselor in sight.

Does every house need to keep its destroyed appliances? State officials know which neighbhourhoods and streets were flooded, already know the maximum amount that will be disbursed per household, and are keenly aware that this is barely enough to get a start, and only then because citizens everywhere are stepping in to help.

Any future disaster management plan must have the post-disaster recovery far better coordinated, with all state services available in one community location, whether the school shelters or regional corporations or police stations that are unaffected.

There’s something to keep in mind too: the situation for all our sister and brother citizens in a few months’ time when its Christmas and Carnival, and the media has moved on. Will we be able to track the effect of the flooding on children’s scores at SEA and in end of year tests? Was there a Ministry of Education plan for how to support those children in coping and thriving between now and then?

Do we know how women and men’s recovery will be affected by being in a female-headed household or a two-parent family or in an extended family with elderly or ailing parents or with disabled children? Or, among households that survived on home-based businesses, and who are now without both a place to live and a livelihood?

It’s so important for us to always understand that social context – income level, family type, source of income, disability, age, gender, experience of household violence – influences how people recover, their experience accessing social services and their approach to trauma.

Amidst the apocalyptic and heartbreaking destruction are people’s different and unequal capacities to recover. This is not a ‘national security’ issue, it’s an issue of coordination and sensitivity in post-disaster service provision. It is as necessary as life vests, ropes and rafts in police stations for the next time. And, there will be a next time.

Disaster recovery efforts should have planned for this, and for grandmothers like Miss Pinky who are living by the grace of God until the next such rain.   O