Consider us blessed, or on borrowed time. Either way, Irma and Maria definitely made their presence felt this month. The two hurricanes swept through the Atlantic, and barrelled into vulnerable Caribbean nations at category 5 strength causing widespread destruction as far as the eye could see. The list of affected territories this hurricane season keeps growing, and the Caribbean continues to get the brunt of Mother Nature’s fury.
Case in point this week when a tropical storm advisory issued on Sunday at 11 am turned into a full-fledged hurricane warning in less than 12 hours. Maria rapidly gained strength and by Monday morning the storm was packing winds exceeding 156 mph.
The country was in full shutdown mode from early: schools and businesses closed, while operations at the nation’s airports ceased as people in flood- and landslide-prone areas rushed to hurricane shelters. Residents were urged by the authorities to stay indoors unless it was absolutely vital – but of course there were the city wanderers, who didn’t have any reason for defying government orders other than that of curiosity.
As the winds intensified there were reports of fallen trees in backyards, and storm surges in communities across the island. Hurricane Irma induced fear, urgency and uncertainty, keeping the populace glued to any available newscast.
The last major hurricane to hit Saint Lucia had been Tomas in 2010, which claimed several lives. With the looming threat of more waterlogged disaster, memories of the Christmas Eve trough of 2014 also resurfaced.
Just as quickly as a list of hurricane shelters was circulated, an unnamed caller to a radio station let it be known that one particular shelter was under renovation. In fact, the shelter should not have been on the list at all. Her revelation opened the floodgates for criticism directed at the powers that be whose irresponsibility could have come with deadly consequence.
Most of the day was spent monitoring the storm, as Maria continued to strengthen. In Castries TV crews braving the winds cornered people in the streets who finally gave in and headed for home as high winds lifted sections of galvanize-clad roofs, water from the harbour swept the city’s streets near the Waterfront, and debris thrashed across the road. Rivers and seas raged in villages near and far but alas . . . for Saint Lucia, there would be some good news. A slight northern turn meant we wouldn’t be directly impacted by Maria – devastating news for our sister isle Dominica.
Maria continued to make headlines, and later in the day BBC radio reached out to the STAR for an update. In an interview with presenter Rhod Sharp on BBC radio’s Up All Night programme, Sharp asked me what the next efforts would be for us as a nation. Would the already battered Caribbean help its hurricane-ravaged brothers and sisters? At any other time the answer would have been obvious, but the reality that so many islands had not yet recovered from their own catastrophic losses gave me pause. Somewhat patriotically, I assured him that Saint Lucia would help, as we always did, to the best of our ability.
After our interview I couldn’t help wondering how many more times are we going to have to go through this? Every time these storms hit our cash-strapped nations, many of us are rendered homeless with the passage of storms so severe that they force us to rebuild, often with other people’s money. Fortunately, “the people of the Caribbean are resilient”, according to our prime minister, and “the things we are losing can be replaced by money”, in the words of Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit.
Skerrit had just returned from a trip to another island where he and other government officials had been assessing damage, and making provision for stranded citizens to return home. He flew back to Dominica only to find that another storm of the same magnitude had taken aim at his own island. Even with our knack for rolling with the punches and our unbeatable faith, it goes without saying that the current status quo, threatening to become the norm, will shift things out of favour of countries most in need of assistance.
Saint Lucia’s prime minister, also current OECS Chairman, appeared on CNBC this week speaking about the challenges that came with rebuilding after catastrophic natural disasters. The PM reiterated that the Caribbean people were resilient, that we were all brothers and sisters, and “whereas there may be other events taking place around the world, and priority may not be on us, we have always bound together to be able to make this thing happen.”
He spoke also about ongoing talks with the IMF and the World Bank in light of unfavourable rates, particularly as they related to Small Island Development States (SIDS).
“We’ve been arguing that there are 53 countries called SIDS,” he said. “Saint Lucia has an economy of 1.5 billion, and a population of 175,000 people. The Solomon Islands, Tonga . . . all of us are very small, and we’re saying you cannot classify us just by GDP, and that vulnerability has to be a more broadly accepted term.”
As for infrastructural development, the prime minister felt strongly that there was need for reclassification for lesser-developed countries – something that would translate to more access to concessional funds, low interest rates, and longer-term repayments. With the present situation, when rebuilding is necessary, ‘middle income’ countries like Saint Lucia only have access to commercial rates from international financial institutions.
Addressing insurance coverage Chastanet spoke specifically about ‘Mitigation’ as it related to the reduction of carbon emissions, and ‘Adaptation’, specifically concerning physically rebuilding infrastructure capable of coping with the current trend of mega storms. The latter, in his words, would amount to “accepting that this is a new reality.”
“I think that the insurance mechanism will work very, very well, but it’s going to require some changes in order to ensure that the infrastructure is built back up, because nobody wants to know that every single time there’s a storm we’re starting back at zero.”
Granted, natural disasters are something we’ve become accustomed to here in the Caribbean, and finding ways to survive is pivotal. It’s terrifying that the situation is likely to worsen as the effects of climate change set in, but it is reassuring, at least, to know that our leaders are on the right track in determining the way forward.