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Michael Abrahams | After Matthew, how about some gratitude?

Published:Monday | October 10, 2016 | 10:02 AMMichael Abrahams

Jamaica recently dodged a lethal hollow-point bullet. Hurricane Matthew, the first Category Five Atlantic hurricane since Hurricane Felix in 2007, bypassed our shores before wreaking havoc in Haiti.

Hurricane Matthew is one of the most powerful, and dangerous, hurricanes to visit the region. Category Five hurricanes are the most devastating, and, if they make landfall in inhabited areas, cause catastrophic structural damage, including roofing loss, collapsing walls, downed trees and utility poles, in addition to loss of life.

As Matthew meandered ominously westward, the system was projected to turn in a northerly direction, and affect eastern Jamaica and western Haiti. We saw the projected paths, and all the maps at some point showed the eye of the cyclone passing either over the eastern tip of the island, or just to the east of it. By this time, the system had been downgraded to Category Four, but was still dangerous. Luckily for us, the system took the latter path, travelling farther from the island than expected, and we were spared.

The eye was expected to pass by our island on the evening of Monday, October 3. That afternoon, I decided to venture out to the coastal regions of the Corporate Area to observe the activity of the sea. After passing Harbour View, en route to Bull Bay, I stopped to gaze at the awesome waves crashing to the shore, some even making their way all the way across the road. I was more than a little concerned, because even though the hurricane had not reached our shores, the thoroughfare was already partially inundated. I realised that if Matthew were to hit us, the effects would be catastrophic.

Indeed, the previous day, some outer bands of the system affected us, and a 20-minute downpour rendered several streets impassable, and was responsible for many motor vehicles being immobilised. My own driveway was flooded and I was more than a little uncomfortable. So, on hearing that our warning was downgraded, I breathed a healthy sigh of relief. I was grateful to be spared, but subsequently deeply saddened by the devastation wreaked in Haiti.

In all this tragedy, what I find amazing is that some Jamaicans saw it fit to whine about inaccurate forecasting and overpreparation, or to gloat that their prayers spared us. To all these persons, I have a suggestion. How about focusing on gratitude?

Weather forecasting has become more sophisticated over the years, but is still an inexact science. Attacking our Meteorological Service makes no sense, as all the models up to the day before the predicted strike indicated that the system would have affected us. But hurricanes are known to be unpredictable, and projected courses are not cast in stone.

Also, it is far better to be overprepared than be caught off-guard, as some of the residents in Haiti were unaware of the existence of the hurricane until it was upon them. If you purchased non-perishable food, good for you, it will come in handy at a later date. If you bought perishable items that may spoil, you can donate them to the less fortunate.

In 2004, the centre of Hurricane Ivan passed 23 miles south of Portland Point, and the Category Four hurricane caused significant wind and flood damage, killing 17 people, leaving 18,000 homeless and racking up US$360 million worth of damage. 

Looters went on a rampage, robbing even emergency workers. If Matthew had hit us, the outcome could have been even worse. Indeed, in Haiti, more than 800 deaths have been reported and tens of thousands are now homeless.

As for those who credit prayer for turning the storm away, there is no credible evidence that prayers had anything to do with this. No, it was not a miracle. It is not uncommon for hurricanes to change course. 

A real miracle would have been for Matthew to dwindle from a Category Five hurricane to a small tornado in a matter of minutes and then vanish off the face of the Earth. Also, if you truly believe that your prayers were answered at the expense of our even more impoverished neighbour, and are happy about it, maybe you need to re-evaluate your belief and value systems.

I am grateful, and would like to publicly thank the Meteorological Service of Jamaica, the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM), our media and our government officials who communicated with us and kept us informed.

For those of you who wish to assist Haiti, check out the websites for ODPEM (www.odpem.org.jm) and Food For The Poor (www.foodforthepoor.org) for more information.