For the past few days, I have been wrapped up in social media posts – looking at photos and videos of broken buildings, ravaged landscapes and water – water everywhere – whether salt or fresh it is hard to tell, and likely a mixture of the two. Even in Kingston, Jamaica – well outside the path of Irma, but touched by her trailing skirts as she spins towards Florida – we have had persistent rain and major thunderstorms. A lightning bolt knocked out our airport equipment at the Jamaica Civil Aviation Authority, and technicians have been working under great stress to fix it. Our airspace closed on Friday, but (as rain continues to fall outside my window) some flights are back on track from Kingston today.
This is nothing, compared to the terrible experiences our neighbours have endured over the past few days. Living through a hurricane gives you a strange and very disconcerting sense 0f how close we all live to the “edge.” We human beings – “civilised,” urbanised, living in a world of pop stars, fancy cars, meetings and bills to pay – are suddenly brought face to face with the elements. Pure and simple; awe-inspiring and terrifying.
Every time I see the strained faces of Caribbean people after a hurricane – glad to be alive, but mentally exhausted – I remember staying up all night during Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, sweeping rain water out of the back of our house after part of our roof came off. The utter weariness of the long aftermath of rain, more rain, waiting for power to come back, lining up outside the ice factory for precious ice, filling buckets with water.
Somehow, though, there are always glimpses of hope and light. We seize on them. I remember our neighbour coming to the gate when the storm had passed, bearing plantains and sharing neighbourly commiserations. She was the amazing, resilient and beautiful Rita Hilton – now living in rural Jamaica and a dynamic player in the agricultural export market. I also remember the two Rastafarians who lived in a small cottage next door, who visited us during the eye of Hurricane Gilbert and climbed up on the roof with my husband, banging in nails and fixing the worst parts before the storm returned with added viciousness (the second half of the storm is always worse than the first). Here were my thoughts on storms and Gilbert, four years ago.
Even today, there was one of those heart-warming stories in our local news. A young boy playing in a gully in Trench Town on Friday was caught in the rushing waters that descended suddenly from further up in the city (this happens with gully waters). He was rescued by a local young man, 24-year-old Tremayne Brown, who jumped in the water to save 12 year-old Renaldo Reynolds and held onto him. They flew down the gully together until Brown grabbed hold of a tree at May Pen Cemetery and held on until someone came to help pull them out.
These are small, human dramas. I am sure they have been played out all over the Caribbean – rescues, hanging on, survival. But also – great loss. It’s a very emotional time, and one often overlooks the impact that these cataclysmic events have on our souls. There was a lot of depression after Gilbert, which was a direct hit on an ill-prepared Jamaica. We didn’t have many hurricanes in those days. And storms bring out the best and the worst in people; there are videos of looters scurrying in and out of a Fort Lauderdale clothes shop in strong winds, and pictures of police in Sint Maarten chasing looters out of hotels.
I have been involved with Irma for the past few days, partly through the group I belong to, BirdsCaribbean. We have been trying to maintain contact and find out how conservation organisations and individuals who are our partners have been doing, across the region. Also, of course, we need to know how the birds are doing (or not). We have members on every island. The accounts are painful, and the cries for assistance are growing louder. Many aid efforts for the Caribbean are already well under way (see list below of reputable organisations, where you can help).
Meanwhile, I follow down the road in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, on a tweeted video. Twisted and broken trees as far you can see. It reminds me of a scene from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (an unremittingly dark post-apocalyptic book, and movie), which I reviewed some years ago, here. Birds with broken wings, a manatee washed up on the shore waiting for the water to come back (a strange phenomenon that has occurred in the Bahamas and Florida). It is almost surreal. Is this our sweet corner of the Earth, the beautiful “Paradise” our tourists worship?
Will the Caribbean survive? Year after year, enduring increasingly powerful and long-lasting storms, as our waters heat up and the sea level rises? And if we continue to replace forests (including mangroves) with concrete and steel, and pretend that walls and breakwaters and such will solve our problems… What can we expect?
Nature does not care about us; but we need to pay attention to her.
Here are some aid efforts for the islands in the wake of Hurricane Irma, which have been confirmed as reliable and trustworthy:
- The Jost Van Dyke Preservation Society, British Virgin Islands: https://www.gofundme.com/jost-van-dyke-humanitarian-aid
- Habitat for Humanity is collecting donations to help with rebuilding, especially in Barbuda: https://www.habitat-tt.org/product/donation/
- St. John Rescue, Inc, U.S. Virgin Islands: https://www.facebook.com/stjohnrescue/
- Waitt Institute/Waitt Foundation – Barbuda Recovery & Conservation Trust Fund: https://donate.icfdn.org/npo/barbuda-recovery-conservation-trust-fund
- Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA): http://www.cdema.org/emergency_assistance_fund.pdf
- United Nations Development Programme: https://give.undp.org/campaign/hurricane-irma/c144624
One more thing: Many Jamaicans are complaining that they only get U.S. news and what affects Florida, etc. Perhaps that is because their news sources are very limited. They watch CNN and not much else (although even CNN has been reporting from Cuba). If you look around on Twitter, Facebook and online in general, you will however find many local media outlets that provide information. Please also do check Caribbean pages like BirdsCaribbean’s Facebook page, where there are photo albums of the impact of Irma on the islands.
Finally, here are some mostly sad photos of birds, and humans, damaged by Hurricane Irma.