Tue | Dec 12, 2017

Orville Taylor | Irma's wake-up call

Published:Monday | September 18, 2017 | 12:00 AM

In Jamaica, we say, "Man a plan, God a wipe out!" Hurricane Irma was a great equaliser. She marched from the west coast of Africa like so many women in the Caribbean and wreaked havoc. True, she is said to have followed her spouse Harvey, like the stereotyped jealous black woman. However, like a typical abused female, she took out her vengeance on the defenceless children instead of the primary abuser.

This is no barroom joke, though, and it might not even be another in the series of 'I told you so!' comments to the anti-global warming advocates. Rather, there is a simple reality check that the recklessness with which we manage our earth comes back to bite us in the rear end, and most of the sufferers are dark-skinned people.

Oftentimes, though, the more fortunate forget how vulnerable their privileged positions are when trying to protect it. Hardly anyone remembers, for example, that the same Mexicans who some Americans want to see walled out, sent troops across the border to assist hurricane victims in the aftermath of Katrina in 2005.

Natural hazards are great equalisers and do not distinguish between rich or poor. True, the wealth of a country's citizens will affect their abilities to afford solid housing solutions. But when storm surges flow inland, they turn residents of condominiums into boots-wearing seamen.

Images of foolhardy dwellers in the Florida Keys, although they considered themselves big coxswains, had to suck on for dear life to their vessels as Irma battered, sank and grounded them. When it comes to hurricanes, we in Jamaica do not have as many pushy class-conscious boat owners who are stupid enough to try ride out the storm, unless they sniff the same snuff as the singer allegedly does.

The devastation caused by Irma demonstrates to the territories and countries in the Atlantic and Caribbean Sea that whether you call them acts of God or simply Mother Nature at work, hurricanes do not obey visa restrictions. They do not discriminate based on socio-economic status of the citizens who live along their paths.

 

POOR-COUNTRY PROBLEM

 

Interestingly, because poorer nations have been the major victims of hurricanes' wrath in recent years, we have come to think of them as a poor-country problem. Indeed, Hurricane Matthew, in 2016, left around 1.4 million Haitians, some 13 per cent of that population, either homeless or in need of humanitarian assistance. Overall, Haiti's death toll was above 800.

Matthew was a Category 5 hurricane, and Haiti has some of the poorest infrastructure in the Caribbean Basin. Its poor housing standards are legendary and the earthquake totally exposed how inferior the building standards were. Yes, poverty of the nation was a big factor, and it added to the overall stigma of Haitians being refugees and inferior.

Somehow, nobody learned from Katrina, and I hope it is not because New Orleans, which suffered more than 80 per cent flooding, US$81 billion in damage and more than 1,000 deaths, is one of the blackest cities in the USA. The lesson is that being a resident in a First-World country is not a protection, especially when you live in a community that is dominantly black.

Lest the region forget, despite the damage that Jamaica experienced itself, it has consistently offered outreach help to many of the vulnerable outposts of the UK. Importantly, Jamaica, ironically because of our deep experience with tropical cyclones, has expertise in such disaster preparedness.

Our social-intervention response teams, headed and peopled by many of my colleagues from the UWI, have been among the first responders over the past few decades.

Caribbean island nations or metropolitan outposts are part of the same geographical area and are culturally much closer than they are willing to admit. We share far more in common with Guadeloupe, despite their language difference, than they have with France. But that is for those hurricane-vulnerable nations and territories to quickly realise.

As the almost 2,000 residents of Barbuda evacuate where they have more than 95 per cent destruction of dwellings, and numbers ranging between 30 and 80 percent in the other northern and north-eastern Caribbean islands, they must realise that like Guam and Hawaii in the Pacific, they are more likely to find immediate refuge in the event of major disaster, man-made or otherwise, from the Philippines than continental USA.

This is a wake-up call. There has never been a more urgent need for a deeper CARICOM alliance, even among those 'foreign' islands.

- Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI, a radio talk-show host, and author of 'Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets'. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.