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Hurricane Irma: when everything goes quiet

Written by Arabella Fraser

Hurricane Irma, a category five storm, is battering the Caribbean. In the late 1990s, the last hurricane of this category – but perhaps not this force – to hit the Dutch and French islands of St Maarten and St Martin left an indelible mark. The ravaged island lost power and communications for days. In 2015 when I visited the island, one resident recalled how he held on to a steel girder in the middle of his house while the winds raged. He survived while the house around him collapsed. But the noise and terror of the winds stayed with him for years, a paralysing trauma that plagued his day-to-day life.

Amidst the eerie information blackout that comes with these events, one can imagine similar scenes happening again today.

However, St Maarten ‘built back better’. Since the 1990s it has run annual hurricane awareness campaigns, fronted by the Prime Minister. Every year it organises emergency shelters before the hurricane season. In 2015, before a category three storm hit, people were boarding up their windows and buying emergency supplies – water, torches, tinned food. This has – and certainly will have now – saved lives.

In the face of extreme events like Irma, there are questions to be asked about whether current levels of preparedness are sufficient. Preparedness requires as much attention as coordinating a response, and globally it is still under-funded. Even though investments were made, government officials, residents and businesses in St Maarten knew that a category five event would test them. When asked in 2015 what he would do in the event of a Category five forecast, one port worker replied, ‘Take a plane out of here’. Many residents, however, cannot afford to do so.  

Despite better preparedness and awareness, St Maarten and St Martin faced endemic problems in planning and resourcing their islands’ development in ways that would take people and infrastructure out of harm’s way, and reduce their vulnerability to impacts. Although among the wealthier of the Caribbean islands, such small states all face financial and land use constraints. These are compounded by economic development pathways, and vested interests, that have allowed sensitive ecosystems and land at risk of landslides and floods to be built on.

There are also vulnerable populations on these wealthy islands. Haitians on St Maarten, who often work in the tourist industry, live in shelters highly exposed to wind. Many settlements are inaccessible to emergency vehicles and, because they lack political and legal status, many residents prefer to avoid government officials.

With governments sending aircraft carriers and non-governmental organisations preparing to respond, we must remember the lessons we’ve learned from past disasters.

Secondary impacts, like water-borne diseases, must be dealt with quickly. A co-ordinated response that supports governments and citizens should build on their needs and current strategies for coping. The economic, political, social and psychological dimensions of long term recovery must all be recognised – and the commitment to building back better must continue after the news headlines move on.

As the climate changes, these events will intensify and we have a responsibility to avoid development pathways that create risk and vulnerability for the most marginalised in our societies.

No disaster is entirely natural. Well-funded, well-executed plans can mitigate the risk of loss and damage from even the severest storm. We must think now about how relief efforts and rebuilding can tackle the root causes of disasters and climate change.

One of my interviewees offered a salutary warning, “After a while everything fades away … everything goes quiet until something happens again”.