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.

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