Observer column published 16 September 2019
by Jean Lowrie-Chin
Last week we cast our minds back to September 12, 1988 the day that Category 3 Hurricane Gilbert hit Jamaica, lingering over us for about six hours. We remember the howling wind, tearing around our yard like a prehistoric creature, destroying our trees and threatening our roof. It felt like an eternity. How, we are asking ourselves, could anyone imagine that the Category 5+ Hurricane Dorian would sit stubbornly over Northern Bahamas for over a day. We were overcome with a sense of helplessness when we saw the grim reports, those islands being literally shredded by this monster system.
Bahamian Marion Bethel wrote from the Bahamas during the ordeal: “We are all in shock, numb & devastated at the horrific impact on Abaco from Dorian! As I wrote this it is moving at 1 mile per hour over Grand Bahama, just hovering & wreaking havoc everywhere! Persons are stranded in homes with rising tides right now! .. We’re all in wait & watch mode as there is nothing we can do at this time!! Tuesday or Wednesday at the earliest!! This monstrous hurricane a CAT 5-6 moving with wind speed of 185-200 miles plus per hour has savaged & continues to pummel the northern islands! The strongest hurricane to date in this part of the hemisphere, we’re told!!”
Thank goodness for the strength of that country, whose islands spared by the hurricane could immediately set up relief operations, partnering with regional and international organisations to rescue, shelter and feed some 70,000 families left homeless. Our friend and perennial volunteer Ann Marie Casserly kept us up to date with releases from the Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), detailing their planning which included the enrolment of displaced students ages 4 to 19. They were invited “to seek enrolment at one of the government schools .. in any of the unaffected family islands” and were offered medical screening, uniform and lunch assistance, and referrals for counselling services.
Chef José Andrés of World Central Kitchen
Jamaica stepped forward early, with our own Adam Stewart linking his Sandals Foundation and Sandals Resorts International to other tourism concerns who came on board to support this beautiful Caribbean destination. For what will be extensive reconstruction efforts, the Sandals Foundation has partnered with Food for the Poor, an organisation which has years of experience in the fast roll-out of housing solutions in 16 Caribbean countries.
As they did after the massive Haiti earthquake, members of the Jamaica Defence Force have been dispatched to assist in relief efforts. I remember being told that in the Haiti operation, it was our JDF soldiers who had fast-tracked the efficient distribution of relief supplies. Canadian High Commissioner Laurie Peters responded swiftly to the JDF’s request for flight support and so the Canadian Air Force has been making multiple trips, taking our soldiers to the hardest hit areas in the Bahamas.
Wake-up call for Jamaica
The destruction wrought by Hurricane Dorian is a wake-up call for Jamaica. Last week’s flooding after two hours of rain is a warning that we are far from prepared for a big weather event. Let us be clear that the poor folks packed tight in some garrison areas have no sanitary conveniences and a garbage collection problem, so their garbage ends up in gullies. We cannot be telling people ‘Nuh Dutty Up Jamaica’ when we have them living in sub-human conditions. What would become of their frail shacks and shaky old tenement buildings if they were hit by a major system? Further, there are hotel workers living in such circumstances. How will our tourism industry recover if we don’t plan for their safety ahead of time?
Jamaica has no shortage of goodwill and brain power, but we need to synergize our planning. With efficient engagement among the various ministries and multi-lateral organisations, our country can become a model of resilience.