Monday, September 29, 2008

The Forgotten People of Disaster

My interest in chronic natural disasters particularly hurricane began with a personal experience in 1979. August, 29, Hurricane David at 120 mph crossed over Dominica. It killed over 40 people and left over 80% of the population homeless. My home lost its roof so did that of my grandparents and neighbors. We lost everything. the following week we got hit again by Hurricane Allen. I remember standing over the beaten landscape, a hopelessness punctuated the air. A compelling sense of resignation, it seems, had taken over. We did not know where to start or even how to start. The task looked overwhelming. If was impossible to get to the outside world. Telecommunications was decimated. Fred White using a ham radio make first contact with the outside world. Every plant it seems was stripped of every leaf. The hills looked as if someone had torched them. Life looked impossible. It was by day three we recognize that we were on our own. Once that kicked in, we started putting the pieces of our lives together. I was entering my final year of high school. I lost my books and clothes. A a nation, it took us 18 months to finally have electricity restored. We spent two years on aid and food ration because the following year, Hurricane Fredrick destroyed the entire banana industry. We had lost our economic mainstay, again.

It took me four (4)months to get back into school. Our school building was used as a hurricane shelter. School administrators treated us as if nothing had happened. Within two (2)weeks we had an examination to determine if we would be allowed to write the life altering final examinations administered by the University of Cambridge. I failed woefully, studying by candlelight. By the end of the second term (semester)I had another exam to determine if I would graduate, again I failed. I could not reconcile how I came from the top two in class to this. It was the same cohort of students. So I did not make it to graduation (graduation for us is simply a right of passage. It has no currency) but I focused on the all important University of Cambridge final examination, which I passed.

It was not until I came to the University of Pittsburgh in 1999 and I was researching for an independent study on children and schooling in the aftermath of hurricanes that I finally came face to face with my experience. Since no one had done any work in the area, I depended on online sources, reports and briefs from news and relief agencies. I found that schools were disrupted for up to six (6) months while they were used as shelters. Other were destroyed and had to be repaired or rebuilt completely and that could take months. parens, teachers and freinds had died. I also discovered the long lasting effect of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. As I researched and wrote, I remember stumbling across an article 'The Forgotten People of Disaster,' written after hurricane Mitch devastated Central America in 1998. As I read the experiences of children, for the first time, I came face to face with mine and I simply lost it. I just broke down and wept as I remembered, how I struggled alone to piece my life together. It was my final year of high school and so much depended on that year and there was no support as I came to terms with the experience. Since then, we have had many hurricanes, none like David but each time one of these comes; the fears, the stress, the apprehension of that first experience are relived, several times a year.

From that day, I decided to give children in areas of chronic disasters a voice and a face. They are 'The forgotten People of Disaster." They are the silent sufferers and endure multiple afflictions - personally and educationally. My work starts therefore from understanding chronic disasters. While the mainstream schools has focused on disasters as acute events, I focus on disasters as chronic events and the persistent debilitation and recurring exposure require different approaches theoretically and conceptually. I know I can make a difference for children and for their school as we work with them to reconstruct their lives as they reconstruct their schools and communities after disasters.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Hurricane Ike and resilience

Last night, Hurricane Ike finally found his way into Pittsburgh, knocking down power lines, felling trees, creating a scare and traffic congestion. The 70mph wind gusts was minimal compared to what Texas and Louisiana got and the destruction and disruption there are widespread. Many who chose not to evacuate, relate near death experiences. They vow never to stay irrespective of the size or strength of the storms. Ike's was only a category 2 but its sheer size gave it the impact of a category 3-4. One thing is almost always certain with hurricanes, they will disrupt telecommunications, power and transport . These are so central to community operations that their disruption disrupts almost everything else including lives. It is always better to evacuate. For small island communities in the Caribbean evacuating is never an option. Resilience is the option.

Finding ways to cope, to bounce back and to do so within days is the objective. We have learnt the art of constucting to withstand hurricanes using concrete structures, heaped roofs with hurricane ties, building on concrete columns or stilts and use of hurricane shutters. We have learnt that we are our neighbors keepers and as citizens we spring into action to help. Our neighbors doors are always open in the face of disasters.

This morning I stepped out of my house to find that a huge tree had fallen across the street and smashing the cars beneath it. Caution tapes were stretched on both sides of the incident, warning unsuspecting motorists and pedestrians and waiting for someone else to clear the tree and the debris. On seeing that, I reflected on the reaction to a similar scene at home in the Caribbean. I would have awaken to find the street cleared. Local chainsaw operators would immediately sprint into action. This experience has become so normal that local communities, neighbors and residents along streets in the Caribbean know the urgency and often with few streets, quick local action is required. Often enough, few others exist to do the task. These have contributed to the kind of resilience that has given Caribbean islands the coping skills during disasters and particularly hurricanes. Roads are cleared almost immediately; teams of electricians move from one island to the next restoring power. Teams of contractors and carpenters travel to the areas needing assitance. Communities must be prepared to spring into response action during hurricanes and any disaster for that matter. Simply waiting for the authorities to do it marks the absence of resilience and a failure to understand that restoring system are essential to averting disaster.

In Galveston, the disruption is such that people are being evacuated, after the hurricane. Those who were evacuated before are unable to return as the clean up, search and rescue continued. Schools have been closed indefinitely. Previous instruction time is being lost particularly for those in their final year and those preparing for crucial exams, the loss of books, uniforms and power are bound to have their impacts. The trauma of having experienced the disaster itself and its aftermath can last for years, affecting learning. We do not know how many schools were destroyed or inundated with water. This can delay further the return to a normal school life. The issue of death of friends, family, teachers and pets can be debilitating for children. Ike is gone but it leaves behind, fast on the hills of Gustav, the Katrina story of risk associated with encroachment on natural and cultural protections, and the vulnerability of coastal regions. We may not be able to do much but we sure can do a better job of community response and local action, and in getting these communities to take more responsibility for their safety. This begins with forging social relations that allows communities to transit to a disaster response mode. This include caring for others and their welfare and understanding that self security is enmeshed with the securing of others. School are pivotal in teaching and fostering that kind of resilience in the young as a foundation for resilient community construction.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Day After Gustav

Now that Gustav has gone on and the post mortem has begun, I think it is time to write the obituary. Here goes

1. The evacuation was a success largely due to Katrina. This was a lesson well learnt more by the people for having experienced Katrina and its aftermath and of course coming so close as it did on the hills on Katrina and having just celebrated the 3rd anniversary. Talk of a dress rehearsal. With most of the people gone, one wonder whether the extensive deployment of the national guard was essential.

2. Hospitals had back-up electricity and landing pads for emergency evacuation should it become necessary

3. The levees we are told held up but Gustav was no Katrina. So the question is, held up to what? I saw leaks and water inundations in several places that appeared to be have been played down or explained away. Had this storm come in with the same venom with which it left Cuba, the results for the levees would have been the same as in Katrina

4. Disaster response is about local organizing and leadership; Thanks to Katrina, local leaders having experienced the worst, were able to keep their nerves this time and call the shorts rather than wait for a distant bureaucracy to do so.

5. Helicopters were waiting in the wings should emergency evacuation become necessary. This was organized before the storm; a lesson learned well.

6. My thesis still held: despite the size of the storm, three critical things will fail and in Gustav they did; telecommunications, transport routes and electrical power - three essential services. This strengthens my positions that local communities, neighborhoods are the basis for organizing for disaster preparation and response. The role of other levels of government is to support and provide the resources to facilitate the organizing.

7. What we have not seen and is still unrecorded is the trauma associated with having to go through this experience again and again. It raises the need to rethink our processes, structures and organizations in the face of this chronic exposure to hurricanes. A different set of arrangement may be required as opposed to those used for acute disasters. This one will keep coming and the response must be the same because big or large, once it's named a hurricane, essential services will collapse and the presence of population in these areas simply turns the disaster into a catastrophe. Katrina was bad because of the water, it was worst because of the people who did not evacuate. This time we got them out, reducing the trauma but vestiges of it remains because each time a new storm comes, it resurrects traumas inflicted by previous storms.

In the absence of these critical services, the responsibility rests on neighborhoods and local communities to respond to the needs of each other; establishing and maintaining the relationships at these levels to accomplish that is paramount.

In the end, it seems, it was the combination of a weaker Gustav and the experience of a stronger Katrina, three years before that may have spared the city but as expected the critical services still collapsed. However we perceive it, moving the people out was the best strategy that could have been employed and it worked, Major Nagin. It worked in part because you had the support and the resources. Now is the time to focus on the resilience and that includes restoring the wetlands because it will happen again.

For me, schools were disrupted again. Children are dispersed in at least five states;their homes may have been destroyed or even their schools. It may be days before they return. They have to make that re-adjustment, settle again and start over. They saw it all three years ago. I wonder how they feel and what coping mechanisms do they use. How prepared in the school system for sometime like this and to think we are in the peak of the hurricane season? It will happen again, this year, next year, the next three years or every year for the next five years. This is chronic. It does not go away. Hurricanes will not go away. We need to be resilient, children need to be made resilient.