Fri | Dec 15, 2017

Mark Wignall | Be calm but there will be storms

Published:Thursday | August 31, 2017 | 12:00 AM

As reports come in of the Houston tragedy and acts of human heroism are displayed across thousands of TV screens in Jamaica, it is well we be reminded that we are still officially in the hurricane season, and even as I write this a huge system is drifting off the coast of Africa and is headed west.

One hopes it finds a more favourable path by tracking northwest and then out into the open Atlantic.

The deluge in Houston is unprecedented, happening only once over many generations. The times of flood I remembered in Jamaica were rains associated with hurricane Flora in 1963, the incessant showers of 1979 and 1986 and the six-day torture of battering rain as tropical storm Nicole parked by us for too long a spell in late September to October 2010.

The life of many residents of Houston took a nightmarish turn and many will not ever truly recover. It will be an uphill task cleaning up after Harvey, rebuilding, returning order to public spaces and acquiring new material possessions. It will be almost impossible to cease reliving the nightmare.

Many of us long for more - a plusher living room set, a seven-foot HDTV, a flashier car and even the latest memory-foam mattress. And then comes tragedy, a flood and the house submerges and all of that is destroyed. It is then that normality takes on a whole new meaning. Normality is good, it is desirable to have just enough and be bored with it.

Boredom is very OK as an alternative to running the risk of getting trapped inside the house as rapid rising floodwaters brings on the naked panic. If there is a great lesson to learn from tragedies of this nature it is that they tend to bring people together.

The last time I saw that in Jamaica was in the aftermath of hurricane Gilbert in September 1988. Rich and poor, old and young, recluse and extrovert, many of which may have not had much time before to know each other now had reason to mingle and even share the same pot. When all was stripped away we were all the same under the skin.

At this time in Jamaica, we are desperately in need of something bigger than ourselves to bring us together. I am certainly not making out a case that we need a tragedy to make that happen but, those of us with long memories would do well to remember the new understandings that were gained then.

 

Catastrophic flooding

 

I am certain that many people in Houston must have believed they were cursed as heavy winds battered coastal areas and the rain system just sat on them, forever drenching them and eventually causing catastrophic flooding.

It is the same with an earthquake. After five seconds every other second of heart-stopping rumble is about a minute. When will it end? During the passage of Hurricane Gilbert, where I was in significant elevation in the hills, the storm raged from Monday afternoon until early Tuesday morning. While the sipping of whisky calmed my nerves I was constantly saying, is it never going to end.

America is a wealthy nation, but one can already see that the scope of the damage has the capacity to strain even the richest of us. Can Houston ever return to its normal self or will there be some plans for radical reshaping of the city's physical infrastructure?

Here in Jamaica where our GDP per capita is but a fraction of, say, Singapore's, we have people literally living in gully beds and water paths. It is easy to make a verbal case for the removal of poor families living close to gully banks or old waterways and housing developments like Caribbean Terrace in Harbour View.

It is an entirely different matter to generate the funding to make those physical moves a reality as the big question, move them to where crops up. Many unstructured, squatter communities across Jamaica cannot just be hoisted in the air like superman magic and placed somewhere else.

So, many of our people know of the potential danger to their lives should Jamaica be inundated with heavy showers. Many are prepared to take that risk. It's called living.

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