By Michael Derek Roberts
I’ve seen the Facebook posts and the naïve, vapid and self-centered utterances and calls for prayer in the aftermath of the hurricane devastation in the Caribbean (I wonder why these praying people did not pray for the Hurricanes to never come?). I’m also utterly disgusted with the one-upmanship and faddism exhibited by those ignorant of what victims of hurricanes go through, especially hurricanes as powerful as Irma, Jose and Maria that were all Category 5 or near to that. So for the edification of all I’ve decided to pen this article.
One. Hurricanes wreak havoc on the physical infrastructure of these defenseless islands pregnant with housing stock that is flimsy and incapable of withstanding even a Category 1 hurricane. This infrastructure also includes roads, electrical poles, hospitals and prisons. When people’s homes are destroyed the island nation immediately becomes a large homeless shelter. Food, water and medicines are in short supply and governments are literally powerless to cope with the sheer magnitude of the problems and demands.
Two. The most vulnerable people are women, the sick and infirm, children and old people. In the aftermath of the hurricane misery and scare resources fuels exploitation and a “survival of the fitness” mentality. In this new social order women and children (especially young girls) are raped and sexually exploited. Seniors unable to fend for themselves are subjected to predatory practices, ill-treatment and violence. The sick are helpless and shoved aside and left at the mercy of family and friends.
Three. There is ALWAYS a break down in law and order. After all, the national police are also victims of the hurricane. Their families and loved ones are all in the same predicament. As such there is less of a focus on preventing crime and preserving order as policemen and women sometimes fall victim to the same exploitation, corruption, and predatory practices that the civilian population faces. That’s why the United States government dispatched the army and National Guard forces to Florida and Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. They were there to help in relief and recovery efforts but also to assist in maintaining order. The Caribbean has no such thing or mechanism.
Four. People far removed from the ravages of the hurricane(s) believe that its all that’s needed is food, water, medicines and building materials. They can’t comprehend the deep trauma suffered by a population that lived through a storm packing winds of 150MPH, seeing all of their homes and livelihood destroyed. They can’t understand that in places like Dominica, Barbuda and Puerto Rico national unemployment is now through the roof since local business places, hotels, and other income-generating institutions are all gone and will take considerable time to come back.
Five. Pulling out a few cans of food, some bandages, medical supplies and building materials are great because they give the individual a sense of satisfaction for having “done something.” But these one off efforts do very little to help victims of hurricanes recover in the long run. That’s because these efforts are simple publicity stunts, are shot-term, and are mechanisms to assuage guilt. As soon as the novelty and shine of the event passes then its back to normal and natural forgetfulness ensues. What is needed is a SUTAINED, ORGANIZED, ONGOING EFFORT. And when it comes to rebuilding and recovering after hurricanes hit the Caribbean we in the United States have the attention span of a fruit fly. This kind of effort is not sexy, does not drive Facebook “likes” and do not generate great “selfies.”
Six. People in the Caribbean diaspora need to bring awareness to the fact that there are “hurricane proof” homes in the world today and the old 18th century Caribbean building codes need to be changed. Here’s an issue that can go viral on Facebook. But again, this is not the kind of thing that is instant content on social media. It’s about research, coherent and critical thinking – things that are not in great supply on social media.
Seven. Right now it seems many of us have lost sight of, or entirely forgotten, the fact that Hurricane Maria, and Hurricane Irma before it, excoriated several other islands in the Caribbean. Puerto Rico is the new sexy thing on social media. However, from tiny Barbuda, which had to be evacuated and up to now remains uninhabitable, to Dutch St. Martin, where 90 percent of the buildings were damaged, this hurricane season has been brutal. Dominica, the US Virgin Islands, the British Virgin Islands, and Cuba were also badly manhandled by these storms.
Eight. Boasting some of the best beaches in the world Caribbean islands are exotic travel magnets for tourists from around the world. But they’re also difficult to reach and often poverty-stricken places, where even the wealthiest people (in the Bahamas) have a per capita GDP of only US$27,000 per year. That’s what makes the islands of the Caribbean particularly vulnerable to severe weather events — and what makes their recovery prospects after Hurricanes Irma and Maria worrisome and difficult.
Other Contributing Factors
Caribbean inequality and underdevelopment factors also help and contribute to the hurricane-prone region. In this scenario long simmering socioeconomic problems complicate disaster preparedness, relief and response. Across the Caribbean region, people spend most of their income on daily essentials like food, clean water, clothing, shelter and medicines. This “hand to mouth” existence means that there is very little money left over for lifesaving hurricane-resilient roofs, storm shutters, solar generators, and first aid kits.
This situation is even graver for the poor. Simple things like emergency radios and satellite telephones that could warn of impending hurricanes and tropical storms are largely unaffordable, as is homeowner insurance that can help rebuild and hasten recovery efforts.
In fact, poor Caribbean residents also live in the most disaster-prone areas because housing is cheaper on island hillsides (Haiti) prone to mudslides and flash floods. This exponentially increases the danger they face when a hurricane strikes. The low construction quality of these dwellings offers little protection during storms while post-disaster, emergency relief and vehicles are not always able to access these areas.
Finally, Caribbean women are perhaps the most vulnerable and at-risk population in the aftermath of any hurricane. Rigid gender roles in the region force women to handle childcare, cooking, cleaning, washing and some agricultural work in a normal daily routine. They are expected to perform these tasks, in addition to caring for the old and the six in post-hurricane nations. But in this scenario women are the first to be inflicted with water-borne diseases like cholera (Haiti), yellow fever, Hepatitis A and others, contaminated by the storm’s damage and raw sewage comingling.
Even in post-disaster nations women are expected to perform household labor. So when water supplies are contaminated (with sewage, E. coli, salmonella, cholera, yellow fever, and hepatitis A, among others), women are disproportionately exposed to illness. I hope that you now have a far better understanding of a hurricane and what its impact is on these small, poor Caribbean Islands. So I urge you to put aside your narcissistic posturing and your calls to prayer. Get involved and actually do something.