The old adage: “When it rains, it pours”, can literally be applied to St Vincent and the Grenadines of the present time. As if we don’t have enough on our hands following the dengue outbreak, the COVID pandemic, the eruption of the volcano, along comes the hurricane season and with it the passage of hurricane Elsa.
Preliminary estimates of the damage occasioned by the storm, especially in the north of the country are continuing, but already it is clear that it will amount to millions, a substantial sum that this already disaster-stricken country can ill afford. Unfortunately, because the more heavily populated southern sections of the country have not been as seriously affected, as indeed happened with the volcanic eruption, there is not enough of a national awareness and consciousness of the extent of the problem. How do we get the country as a whole to focus on what is in reality an enormous socio-economic challenge?
Our editorial team visited the areas north of the Dry River last weekend and, from their firsthand reports, there are areas, Sandy Bay being among the worst, which seem to be from a horror movie. The infrastructural damage is so severe that it is difficult to determine which of the volcano, lahars, Elsa or previous damage is responsible for the present state of the infrastructure. Or is it the compounded effect of all these?
In reality though, we have gone past the cause, what matters most is how we deal with it collectively and go forward, how can the residents of the stricken area go forward in rebuilding their lives and how can the country as a whole provide succour and support in the process?
Contrary to the views peddled by a minority, the vast majority of those affected are independent, self-sufficient persons who are not comfortable with being in shelters or accommodating homes, dependent on handouts. In fact many have returned either wholly or part-time to their residential areas trying to pick up the pieces, literally, and rebuild. The issue of relocation seems like anathema to many of the older folk who are adamant that they will stay put and rebuild, though the younger folk seem more open on the matter.
There are enormous challenges however. In addition to the task of cleaning up, farmers who have already begun to replant, complain that with a substantial number of stray animals roaming the area, new sprouts are being gobbled up by the strays.
Clearly the infrastructural cost of rehabilitation will be humongous, beyond the capabilities of a small state like ours, already burdened with previous damage. The government alone will not be able to fund it and must depend both on external assistance financially as well as a mobilisation of national resources, especially human input.
We would need dozens of bridges, complete rebuilding of roads, retaining walls, river and sea defences, homes etc. It is also important that the vulnerability to natural disasters be mitigated by strict physical planning enforcement and co-operation on the part of residents.
In such a situation we cannot afford unnecessary distractions and need the co-operation of all. We again urge the government to take the initiative for a national dialogue on the recovery process, seeking to involve the prominent non-governmental sectors. No matter how well-meaning, how capable, the government will benefit from the infusion of fresh perspectives and inputs, it cannot do it alone.