January 23, 2015

Remembering Rock Gutter tragedy

It is now 11 days since that terrible tragedy at Rock Gutter, yet the mood of the country is still sombre, perhaps to a large extent because of the number of victims who were schoolchildren and the fact that two are still missing. It is, therefore, not business as usual, for the nation is still trying to come to grips with the events of that day. After the funeral on Sunday, the country should begin its return to a state of normalcy, that is, if such a word could be used when speaking about SVG.{{more}} For the families of the dead, it wouldn’t be that easy, for they will have to live with the consequences of this for some time. The loss of secondary school students is a blow, not only to the parents, but also to this small community to whom they could have been considered a human investment. These students would ultimately have made their contribution to that part of the country and to the nation as a whole.

More details have been emerging to give us a better sense not only of what happened but about how we reacted to it. This is important if we have to move forward. While we remain in grief and in shock there are disturbing signs. I have difficulty believing what I am hearing, about politicians trying to capitalize on the plight of these people to score cheap political points. I really refuse to believe that we have sunk so low and that our politics has reached this stage. If this is so, and I have to continually use the word ‘if’, then there is really no hope for us. Obviously, in that kind of scenario, it must demonstrate that no worth is placed on the peoples’ grief and on their lives in this absurd display of cheap politics. I imagine that once the funeral is concluded this weekend, a lot of what is bottled up will flow out.

The important thing following Sunday’s funeral is to begin to look ahead. With two disasters affecting the nation in just over a year, our motto should be ‘preparedness’. Questions are being asked about the Coastguard and how equipped they are to handle such tragedies. Reports are repeatedly indicating that members remained in their boats, while divers and other young men from the area put their lives at risk. The question is, do they have in place what is necessary to deal with such disasters? There is no doubt that the sea was extremely rough in that area. I am not sure what the answer is, but certainly it couldn’t be to sit by while bodies were floating in the water, some apparently still alive, it would seem.

We have to ask serious questions about our ability to respond to disasters, natural and man-made, that could affect us at any time. Does the coastguard for instance have trained and experienced divers, or at least access to some? The recent tragedy has exposed areas that we need to carefully examine. I know that one of the responses will be that being better equipped involves a lot of money and we are a poor country. I do not buy that. Our problem is, to a large extent, one of priorities. Quite often, too, we react instead of being proactive. The seismic unit at the University of the West Indies has for some time now been warning us about the possibility of a major earthquake and, if I am not mistaken, even accompanied by a tsunami. Are we prepared for such an eventuality? Preparation for disasters involves, of course, educating citizens on this matter. If it is done or being done with any seriousness, I will have to admit to being behind the times and very much misinformed.

Our preparation for disasters has to be continually monitored and re-examined and if necessary, added to. A serious education programme has to be built into this, reaching out to the schools and communities. I might be accused of being alarmist on this matter, but I strongly believe that if our country is subjected to the same downpours as occurred on December 24, 2013, we will fare no better. I am in complete agreement with the editorial of last week’s NEWS that, “it is also a good time to examine the entire operation of our transportation system, overcrowding, speeding, general behaviour of drivers, conductors, passengers, the entire system, and also look at the capabilities and functioning of our rescue services on land and sea.” This is not a comment on the recent tragedy, but a plea that we use the occasion to plan ahead. If we place as a priority our response to disasters, maybe some of the groups and individuals that have been assisting us in the aftermath of recent disasters and also with the airport, might rally to our assistance and mobilize support to ensure that we are able to upgrade our disaster response system.

Last week, I commented on how the nation appeared to have come together in face of this tragedy, but there are already signs, especially with us being in the ‘silly season’, that this will disappear. Naturally things that are wrong need to be spoken about and not hidden under the carpet. However, the best way to respond to the tragedy of January 12 is to begin to focus more attention on our disaster response and prevention strategy. To be proactive is to ensure that the country and its people are better informed and so, better prepared.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.