Whether you believe in climate change or not, the planet’s recent seeming rebellion, with its coinciding storms, earthquakes and wildfires, would have at least slightly perplexed you. Saint Lucia was merely two islands away from experiencing what could have been our worst recorded natura
l disaster thus far. Can you imagine the state our homes, schools, hospitals for instance, would be in had hurricanes Irma or Maria barrelled across our shores? Many of us avoid that mental image for fear of blight but, when I sat down this week with Connie George, Chief Education Officer (CEO) to the Virgin Islands, who spoke frankly about the obliteration of educational facilities during Hurricanes Irma and Maria, I could not help but wonder what would become of our schools should we not be so fortunate in any upcoming hurricane season.
The Sir Arthur Lewis Community College, Ti Rocher Pre-School, Choisuel and Micoud Secondary Schools, among others, have all recently been in the news informing the wider public of their dilapidated buildings, some of which are entirely unsuitable for housing daily classroom activities. CEO Ms George, who was generous with her time and information, spoke of poorly erected infrastructure as a key contributor to the extensive damage imposed on schools during the passing of hurricanes Irma and Maria in the Virgin Islands. She said, “One of the things that we were trying to do most recently is to build bigger yet cheaper. Hurricane Irma sort of taught us the lesson that that’s not the way to go because those buildings did not stand at all; they basically crumbled,” leaving educational overseers to pick up the physical and nonphysical pieces of a then ransacked school system. “We had damage in 100 per cent of all our schools in the islands.”
Education officials wasted no time, however; after allowing local and foreign experts to conduct assessments, they quickly determined which schools could become operational again, and which ones were deemed unusable. A month after the hurricane, tents were set up on fields and grounds to house students from early childhood centres who were given priority along with senior secondary school students. “The second set were our senior secondary school students who were already preparing for CSEC or were starting to prepare. We had to locate them in new settings, so we actually transformed an old business building and added classrooms and all the necessities to form the school. We did not begin with primary and junior high until two months later, which was November 6.”
Currently, all students are back in school although, according to Ms George, nearly a quarter of them migrated right after the storm.
“We are 100 per cent back in school from kindergarten to tertiary,” she said. “We are in the schools that were deemed usable. We did some refurbishing – mainly roofs, windows, doors – and we were able to go back into those schools. We are still utilizing the tents to help accommodate a number of students in some areas.”
Although the Education Officer appeared glum about the time it took to make schools functional and about the remaining unusable buildings, the fact that all remaining students are currently back in school two months later felt like a cause of relief. On how they were able to do it, Ms. George said, “We’re extremely grateful that we got assistance from UNICEF, UNDP, Convoy of Hope; we got some UK assistance, the OECS in terms of the Return to Happiness programme – those are the ones that are coming to me right away as being very prominent within the rebuilding process.”
As a tip for neighbouring islands, Ms George echoed the importance of disaster preparedness. “What I would say to the Caribbean: seek to build structures that can withstand elements of the weather, by looking at the building codes, ensuring that we don’t take shortcuts in our buildings,” she noted.
A few organisations like the United Nations, Commonwealth and World Bank Group have already come forward indicating plans to fund disaster preparedness in the Caribbean.
Hon. Prime Minister Allen Chastanet has also kept the topic relevant ever since the hurricanes made landfall in the Caribbean. During a web broadcasted interview, prior to his speech at COP23, the prime minister said, “The next thing that we are looking at is working with the IMF to see how we can classify resilience funding. If we have to build new roads, put utilities underground and fix up our rivers, it’s going to increase the debt burden of our countries significantly.” This, after stating that Saint Lucia and other Small Island Developing States attended the conference specifically to collectively get a motion passed for funding from developed countries and private entities. Although, generally unspecified by our government, it is left to be seen whether education will be at the forefront of these plans.