Annie Paul | The storms that are to come
You have to wonder whether Hurricane Irma was rudely intervening in the debate about the sustainability of small island developing states (SIDS) in the 21st century.
With unerring aim, she slammed the most vulnerable ones in the Caribbean - Barbuda, St Kitts and Nevis, St Martin/St Maarten, St Bart's, Anguilla, Tortola, Anagarda, Virgin Gorda, the entire British Virgin Islands, the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Turks & Caicos, Ragged Island, the Southern Bahamas, Bimini, Grand Bahama and Cuba.
"My heart breaks," wrote curator Holly Bynoe, chief curator of the National Gallery of the Bahamas, herself from the tiny island of Bequia, part of St Vincent and the Grenadines, after listing all of the above on Facebook.
Social media was the go-to place to haplessly wring your hands during the unnerving passage of Hurricane Irma, exchanging notes and advice with others all over the Caribbean and its diasporas. People even took swipes at the naming of storms suggesting like Greenpeace USA: "We should be naming hurricanes after Exxon and Chevron, not Harvey and Irma."
"They should start naming hurricanes after notable climate change deniers," suggested another tweeter.
Thank you very much, but there's already a hurricane named Trump in the hemisphere. "The region is facing a difficult period. Condolences and sympathy to our Caribbean family, Mexico and the USA. You are all in our prayers," tweeted the Jamaican prime minister @Andrew-Holness, acknowledging the deadly earthquake that rocked Mexico during the same period.
"I'm sure the rest of the Caribbean will also send condolences to Ja for over 1,000 people murdered in Jamaica this year," radio talk show host @SimonCrosskill tartly responded to the PM's tweet, earning him the wrath of many. It's not such an ill-considered thought, for although Jamaica was spared a natural disaster this time, it's true we've been ravaged by unprecedented levels of crime and violence this year. The number of those killed by Hurricane Irma pales in comparison to our murder rate in the last eight months.
When an external catastrophe threatens to collide with the catastrophe you're living in, weary cynicism is the order of the day. The Washington Post quoted a Port-au-Prince resident about preparations for Irma in Haiti:
"I guess we are worried, but we are already living in another hurricane, Hurricane Misery," said Nadeige Jean, a 35-year-old mother of three who was selling fruit at the Olympic Market in the capital city. "How much worse can our lives get? ... So they say I should board up my house? With what? Wood? Who's going to pay? With what money will I buy it? Ha! I don't even have a tin roof. If the winds come, I can't do anything but hope to live."
Similar sentiments were echoed by Rutgers University professor Yarimar Bonilla, who was ruminating on Hurricane Irma the day before it hit Puerto Rico, where her family lives.
"Puerto Rico is now about to be in the eye of the 'perfect storm': a climate-change fuelled mass of angry waters that is about to smash into a failing economy, an already dismantled public sector, and a vulnerable population that has already been lulled into accepting austerity and precarity as the inevitable fate of a bankrupt colony."
"Ironically enough," Bonilla continued, "one of the many people I interviewed this summer about Puerto Rico's economic crisis was a local 'wealth manager' who was extremely upbeat about the economic climate. Investments in the wake of Trump's election have been doing very well, she said, 'The only thing we need now is a hurricane.' She was referring to how such natural disasters bring in federal funds for reconstruction and provide a boom for the construction industry. (She encouraged me to invest in Home Depot stock)."
RAY OF SUNSHINE
In the midst of all the mayhem and confusion, an unexpected ray of sunshine appeared. In Trench Town, dwelling place of Bob Marley before his ship came in, a 12-year-old boy was swept away in a gully engorged with rain from Irma's outermost feeder bands. As his mother and others watched, seemingly unable to do a thing but wail and scream, a young man named Tremayne Brown jumped into the swiftly moving water and grabbed the boy.
The two were swept along by the floodwaters and carried far from their homes to Marcus Garvey Drive where Tremayne managed to catch hold of a tree branch and hold on till they were rescued. What struck me about the interview I heard with Tremayne on Nationwide radio the next day was his British accent. It turned out he was a deportee from Britain.
To my mind, this made the daring rescue all the more remarkable. Apart from the fact that the UK deported a hero they might have been better off retaining, you have to wonder whether it was that very upbringing in the UK that made him jump into the gully without hesitation. After all, not a single one of the others seemed willing to risk their lives to save a child, not even members of the community he came from.
If we could clone Tremayne Brown, we might stand a chance of weathering the storms that are to come.
- Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice (anniepaul.net). Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @anniepaul.