Hurricane Dorian has moved away from The Bahamas, heading north along the American coastline towards Canada. Like Joaquin before it, Dorian took us by surprise. Not that the storm was coming. We were tracking it as it swept across the Atlantic and up the Caribbean chain. But that it grew so big and so slow so damn fast. A category five Atlantic hurricane has historically been a relatively rare event, especially a category five hurricane that makes landfall.
In retrospect, the rapid intensification of this hurricane shouldn’t have taken us by surprise. We have had ample warning from climatologists about the effects of warmer oceans and atmosphere on the formation of tropical cyclones. And plenty of words have been written on this very issue: personal meditations on what it means to watch a hurricane destroying one’s home, frank discussions about climate change’s effect on small nations.
But there’s no time for retrospection now, unless it’s the kind of retrospection that takes us back to mistakes made by others in the wake of similar crises. Watching my leaders flounder when faced with the magnitude of this disaster reminds me of the (non) response to Hurricane Katrina fourteen years ago. Back then I wrote this:
As I write, people are continuing to die in New Orleans, dying of thirst and heat exhaustion and illness and starvation. All week they have been dying, and what's worst of all is that they were dying in the very places that they went for help and relief: in the two major shelters that were available for them. For a week the city and the state and the nation have been bickering about who should do what, and when, and people have died as a result.
It’s not yet been a week since Hurricane Dorian brought the floodwaters to our own communities. And there is something unprecedented and unfair about a hurricane that devastates two islands in a small island developing state, and not just any two islands, but the two which housed our second and third largest communities. But that is not the point any more.
Because Bahamians are dying. Our response right now is too confused, too ineffectual, to stop it.
Truth? We were all unprepared. It’s true that we couldn’t have prepared for the kind of disaster that Dorian was—category five stationary over our second city. But we could have prepared evacuation routes. We could have planned better shelters. We could have taught people how to make hurricane kits, what to watch out for, how to plan for the worst. We couldn’t have imagined the worst, but we could have been ready to face it.
We were unprepared. But we don’t need to remain so. Social media is rife with people who have proposals about how to work, how we can make the process of recovery smoother. The problem? Instead of helping the citizens help themselves, government is getting in the way. It can’t help it; The Bahamas is full of so many inefficiencies and impediments to accomplishing even the simplest tasks that there is no way that business as usual will let us begin the recovery. We need to declare a state of emergency. We need to create a new, clear path of action.
It’s what government’s supposed to do.
Let's sit here and work out what exactly it is that a government's supposed to do. It's supposed to look after its economy. It's supposed to protect its infrastructure. And above all, it's supposed to be responsible for the people it represents -- not just the people who voted for it, or the people who support it, or even the people it hopes will vote for it one day in the future; but all the people it represents.
I was angry then; and I am angry now. So angry that I have become silent and speechless. I have tried to write many times but the words would not come. Because the same thing is happening to us here, in the wake of Hurricane Dorian. Our leaders seem dazed by the magnitude of the destruction, at the loss of life (so few people have died in The Bahamas in hurricanes in the twenty-first century; who even knew we could perish?), at the challenges they are facing. We are reactive people. Even though we have thus far been the wealthiest of independent Caribbean nations, we have not invested in systems designed to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century, with its urbanization and climate change. For the better part of a generation, our leadership has ceded the responsibility for national development to foreign investors rather than taking that responsibility on itself. Now, in this crisis, we are left without a response.
And people are dying.
We’re floundering. The hurricane is gone, the world is sending aid, supplies are pouring in, but we’re unsure how to handle the opportunity. But business as usual will not cut it now. The longer we flounder, the more people will die. Unless we make a quick turn, the worst is yet to come.
We must learn from New Orleans, we must learn from Puerto Rico. We must learn from our fellow Bahamians, who are braver and more generous and more determined than anyone imagined. We must learn from our children, who are not talking, but doing. We must learn, and get out of the way. Remove the impediments to recovery. Let the people work. Help the people rebuild. Give the people the tools they need to fix this mess. Streamline the process. Maximize the potential. Get out of the way.
Because once the recovery is started, we have a greater task ahead. We have to start figuring out what disaster response plan we will have when the next monster hurricane comes—and sits for three days over Nassau. Because it has happened in the past. Don’t even begin to imagine it won’t happen again. We need to make that plan, because we are going to need it.
Nuff said now. I done.