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

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Post 283.

All you have to do is walk around with your eyes open. Words said to me by Lloyd Best, one of the now-deceased founders of the 1970s Tapia House movement for a politics that empowers everyday people, not political elites.

I was already following this path, but have lived by these words since. With your eyes open, you can understand much more about our geography and its history.

Take the road from Grande to Point Galeota, and take your children with you. First, your drive through Sangre Grande and Sangre Chiquito (Big Blood and Little Blood) marks the path of slaughter following the Arena Uprising by Indigenous people in 1699, and their subsequent massacre after killing the Spanish Governor and priests.

Eight-four were captured on the run, sixty-one were shot, the rest were tortured after revealing that they were beaten by priests forcing them to attend Catholic services and to labour in the encomienda system. Later, twenty-two were hanged and dismembered, and the women distributed as servants.

Just past the slope to Manzanilla, named by the Spanish who thought they saw “little apples” on the trees, Nariva Swamp begins to emerge on your right as the ocean flings itself onto the shore on your left. It’s in Nariva Swamp, on the sacred Manatee Island, that the surviving Indigenous rebels were caught.

Full of biodiversity and village history, the Swamp became a protected wetland in 1993 after marches and protests against the effects of illegal rice farming, organized and led by women such as Molly Gaskin and Karilyn Shephard of the Wildfowl Trust. It’s hard to imagine such public protests to protect our ecology today.

You might buy watermelons at the side of the road, in front of the villages of Kernahan and Cascadoux, which began to be populated during the second World War when Trinidad was providing food through its ‘war gardens’. In 1999, I was a researcher documenting the lives and beliefs of those villages and, led by Andrew from Cascadoux Village, scaled the cliff-sides of Point Radix, over the ocean, exhilarated and barefoot.

Andrew later fell while picking coconuts, leaving him disabled. Even while remaining positive, as I visited him while Ziya went up to the mud volcano bubbling behind his house, he talked about how the PNM government took away his food card when they came into power. “It was so little money”, he said, “I don’t understand why”.

It’s a UNC constituency, so these things happen. The PNM also closed the Guayaguayare fishing depot, a glossy, windswept compound with storage facilities for fishermen which was opened by PM Persad-Bissessar in her day and with much ado. Why would they so completely lock the local people out?”, I asked UWI historian, Professor Brinsley Samaroo, “because that’s politics”, he said, reminding me just how little we effectively fight for our rights in the face of party leadership and their practices of punishment and reward.

Guayaguayare means the “clashing of waves” and Ziya, my seven-year-old, was keen to visit a place she’d heard about in an often-played, slow love song to the area by Trinidadian musician Drew Gonzales and his award-winning band, Kobotown. One day, going to Guyana, Zi may visit Georgetown’s famous sea wall, and recollect our own small island version.

Still open are the old green and blue grocery shops of John Lee Lum who, at the turn of the century, helped found the Guayaguayare Oil Company  along with Randolph Rust, from whom Rustville gets its name. Rust drilled the first successful oil well, and looking at the thick mangrove tentacles embracing Pilot River, you wouldn’t know that early drilling took place there.

To the left are rigs and tankers out at sea, and closer in is Point Galeota’s centre. Ziya stood contemplating two wells pumping out the compressed fossils below. As sohari leaves danced nearby, I wondered if the crude oil she saw in black pools around the pumps was a sign of our times, their presence soaking into our land. Perhaps, all – the fossils and the money – will be gone when she reaches my age.

If she keeps her eyes open to enough for long enough, she’ll connect those very pumps to Galeota’s tiny South-Eastern wealth, and sea level rise that will almost certainly claim Manzanilla’s coconut trees, the anaconda-like Mayaro road, and all this history.

Then, she’ll be left to picture chip-chip gathering, and the spirituous silk cotton tree at the mouth of the Ortoire River, in her mind’s eye and from childhood memory.