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  • People wade through floodwaters in a street flooded by the overflow from the Yuna River, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Arenoso, Dominican Republic, September 24, 2017.

    People wade through floodwaters in a street flooded by the overflow from the Yuna River, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Arenoso, Dominican Republic, September 24, 2017. | Photo: Reuters

Published 25 September 2017
In Saint Lucia, children of the 50s and 60s grew up naturally expecting 'bad weather' during the annual summer school holidays.

I grew up living with hurricanes — and all my life, I’ve never been able to escape them.

Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico Face Flooding After Maria

On the small tropical Caribbean island of Saint Lucia (only 27 miles long and 14 miles wide, or 238 square-miles or 616 square-kilometers), children of the 50s and 60s grew up naturally expecting 'bad weather' during the annual summer school holidays.

We would actually ‘look forward/ to the weather forcing us to remain indoors all day, during which time away from school we'd find ways to enjoy the non-stop rain while our parents followed what was happening elsewhere by radio.

But the real reasons for our joy had more to do with the fact that our mothers would prepare 'Hot Bakes and Cocoa Tea' for breakfast — and lunch would certainly be different from the regular routine, as we'd be unable to go to the shops to buy the usual fare.

The Good Ole’ Days

There were no weather reports back then — or they were simply ignored. Radio was a luxury for the vast majority and news came completely from overseas sources.

But with illiteracy high in our bilingual (French and English) island where most people speak the same French-based creole as Haiti, elderly people tended to rely more on instinctive readings of the wind and rain, clouds and trees, sounds of animals and flights of birds, to assess the possible direction, time and velocity of an incoming weather system.

No one tried to figure out whether it was a hurricane or a storm: same difference, it just didn’t matter. We simply couldn’t tell the difference. We'd simply await its given name — by which time it will already be on our doorstep.

The concerns back then were never about death and disaster. Landslides were limited to mountainsides in scattered but mainly rural agricultural areas where banana cultivation was affected.

But there was no loss of life — hardly ever.

Rivers and trenches in communities would occasionally flood, but just fast enough for us to race dried coconut-husk boats downstream.

Time to Re-Think the Caribbean's Hurricane Strategy

The rushing river water would take with it the small freshwater species unable to withstand the gush, many ending-up dead or disoriented in the salty harbor, where the parasitic saltwater harbor fish would devour them — and we would then catch them with fishing lines baited with mere paper.

Each community back then included small but effective groups of good neighbors who would make it an annual duty to volunteer and help rescue, relocate, or give shelter to helpless elderly people and vulnerable families.

Boys would take turns pulling large floating objects from the raging rivers to ensure a constant flow from the hills, through the community, into the sea.

Girls would help mothers cook, mop floors and empty containers filled with water after having been placed at various pints around the house where the roof leaks.

Then all That Changed ...

Then came the 70s, when the Caribbean hurricane culture changed.

We now started hearing and seeing radio and TV weather reports warning about 'Tropical Storms', 'Tropical Depressions' and ‘Troughs’, predicting hurricanes — and advising users of sea and sky on when best to venture out.

But even then, traditional fishermen still preferred to count on how the pine trees swayed to determine how the wind blows and read the cloud formations to determine what types of fish they should go after — and where.

In 1979 and 1980, Hurricanes David and Allen, simultaneously, changed the name of the game. They hit the Windward Islands (Dominica, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique) very hard, ushering-in a new reality.

Disaster damage extended to include infrastructural destruction in ways never before experienced. Deaths were reported for the first time in years.

Thereafter, the hurricanes came more frequently and with more deadly consequences.

Understanding the Links

The earlier generation, most of whom had experienced Hurricane Janet in the mid-1950s, noticed the increased frequency and volume of damage visited on the islands by successive hurricanes and Tropical Storms between 1980 and 2015.

The more enlightened among them also noted the vulnerability of the islands and the effects of Climate Change were being both felt and acknowledged.

The links between what we do and what we suffer were now being drawn to our attention by national and regional emergency management organizations, which started to engage in permanent community preparation and regular promotion of national hurricane precaution awareness.

After Tropical Storm Erika, though not a hurricane, visited such damage on Dominica in 2015, the frailty of similar territories became even more exposed to the world.

By then, Caribbean governments were devising mechanisms to facilitate cutting bureaucratic red tape to quicker dispatch of aid from the likes of the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB). A regional insurance mechanism, CACRIP, was also devised.

But in the main, islands experiencing the wrath of the raging tropical weather system, given their common economic weaknesses, always end-up seeking, appealing and begging for international aid and relief, no matter where it comes from.

Different Experiences

Today’s generation of Caribbean citizens have different hurricane experiences – the older ones can compare the difference, but the younger have seen nothing like this ever before.

Where young people had fun and offered to freely help others three and four decades ago, the tendency today is to survive in a world of “Survival of the Fittest.”

Destruction After Hurricane Maria

Mainly young people from the gangs marauding streets and communities in St. Martin and Dominica, reportedly menacing already distressed people with guns and cutlasses, looting shops and stores, robbing homes — even stealing new vehicles from abandoned car sales depots.

On the other hand, today’s young internet generation has also been able to use the current Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to help show the real world the true picture of real extent and effect of hurricane damage to small islands — and in ways the older folks could never even have dreamed of.

Whereas the older generation in the 70s and 80s had to depend on the powerful English signal of Montserrat-based Radio Antilles (owned by Germany’s Deutsche Welle) for news on hurricane damage, today WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media have become the order of the day, filling the communications gap with instantaneous information in words, pictures and sounds.

Progressive Evolution

But as with the progressive evolution of the ways in which young people had fun back in time, some of today’s youth get their fun from abusing the IT to mislead or misinform, not necessarily with sinister intent, but just for fun.

For instance, (believe it or not) there were several instances of photos of Hurricane David damage to Dominica in 1979 falsely presented as damage from Maria in 2017.

Even worse, a website dedicated to spreading Fake News widely circulated a false item claiming Saint Lucia’s Prime Minister had been hospitalized in a critical condition in New York after collapsing in the middle of a UN speech pleading for hurricane assistance.

Believe it or not, Fake News has even entered the hurricane vocabulary in the Caribbean today, thanks to the stormy climate change in information technology and weather patterns thus far, during 21st Century.

If only the technology could be applied to tame the weather when it decides to behave bad every year…

Earl Bousquet is a journalist from Saint Lucia.

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