When I was sixteen I joined a search and rescue team.
We were trained to do basic tasks like first aid, how to get to people who had fallen off cliffs, how to bring them up from those cliffs, or how to locate people who had got lost in the woods. These tasks had specific skills. All of us were trained in basic first aid and in CPR. But some of us had more extensive training. All of us were trained to abseil down cliffs and to climb back up them; some of us were trained to carry stretchers down those cliffs, to load injured people onto those stretchers, and to be hauled back up. All of us knew how to secure ropes to trees and set up belay stations to make these processes as safe as possible. And some of us were trained in how to conduct land-based searches, how to orient ourselves in the forest. We learned, before GPS, how to use compasses and maps to find our way through thick tree cover. We were taught how to conduct sweep searches and grid searches. We were taught what we were looking for, and what we could do, and what we were trained to find. We were taught how to organize ourselves, how to look after one another, how to make sure no one was left behind, above all how to ensure everyone left a crisis situation safely.
My point? We were trained to meet emergencies. We were taught the basics of what to do if we were ever called out by the RCMP to a site of a disappearance. We were drilled until such things were second nature to us. We were rostered and on call one week per month. We had a plan. We knew what we would do in the worst case. We were trained and ready. The worst case never happened, but we were trained in case it did.
Almost the worst case has happened to The Bahamas this month past, and we were not ready.
It’s easy to blame the government, to vilify those people in power who have, once again, appeared to drop the ball. Scapegoats are always convenient in times of crisis, and pointing our fingers at them (or at the so-called “illegals”, or at the people who didn’t evacuate, or at the weather forecasters who didn’t know Dorian would become a Category 5 hurricane so fast, or at God) eases our pain just a little bit, in the moment.
But it doesn’t solve any problems at all.
Because we are all at fault.
Permit me for one minute to indulge in old-lady language.
When I was growing up, hurricane season was a big deal. It was marked, every May, by a flurry of activity. Newspapers would produce hurricane supplements which were full of articles that gave instructions on what to do to prepare for hurricane season. Lists like the following would be produced:
Stock up on non-perishable goods
Ditto bottled water
Ditto on batteries, flashlights, hurricane lamps, kerosene oil, candles and matches
Put matches in waterproof containers
Check hurricane shutters
Trim trees from around roofs and electrical lines
Remove debris from yard and surroundings
Check roofs for leaks and conduct repairs around the house
Articles would be included in these supplements that explained how hurricanes worked and what the different categories meant. They would explain what effects would be expected to accompany each level of hurricane: what a tropical storm was, what a category 1 hurricane could do, what a category 5 could do. They would include stories of past hurricanes, listing the damage done and the people killed in the terrible storms of 1926 through 1932. They would provide a tracking map for a hurricane, since there were no satellite maps available to the ordinary citizen. They would list the names chosen for the hurricane season. They would explain what to do if a hurricane watch was called, and what to do if a hurricane warning was called.
They would list the hurricane shelters, by area.
They would list the emergency numbers, by area: who to call in an emergency, and when it was possible to make a call in an emergency.
The same thing would happen on the radio. (In the Olden Days, there was only one radio station and everybody listened to it, especially in times of trouble.) Every day during Community Announcements—which always followed the news—the list of hurricane shelters would be read. By area. The shelters would be manned by volunteers from the Red Cross and representatives from the police. They would be stocked with blankets, cots, food, old clothing, lamps, oil—whatever you might need if people had to evacuate their homes. They were chosen from among the sturdiest buildings, often on high ground, and I believe they were inspected annually to make sure they were up to par. (We had a “par” then, go figure.) People were told to listen to the radio for instructions in the event they might need to evacuate. People living in low-lying areas were always advised to evacuate, and were instructed to listen to the radio for the evacuation order.
But things have changed, and quickly. We have all changed. Despite the fact that we have been having devastating hurricanes in our country since the turn of the 21st century (and even the decade before), we have seemed to do away with the hurricane preparation. Beyond investing in plywood to be nailed into walls (a far cry from fitted hurricane shutters) and stocking up on tinned goods, we don’t really do all that much else. Radio stations have proliferated, so community announcements take an altogether different form. We are collectively all to blame.
And what is the result? A category five hurricane struck two centres of the Bahamian population, and we were not prepared. Our equipment was faulty; our systems failed; the shelters didn’t shelter, and too many people have been injured, have died.
We were not ready to conduct search and recovery. We were not ready to call in the troops, Bahamian and otherwise. We mobilized more quickly than we did for Joaquin or Irma, but we didn’t mobilize fast enough. And too many people have been injured. Too many have died.
So we need to change the way we operate. We need to learn from the terror and destruction wrought from Dorian and prepare better in the future.
There are people who say that there is little one can do when a category five storm makes a direct hit on one of our islands. I don’t happen to agree. There is a point at which one has to stop all human action and turn one’s fate over to God or the universe or Huracan, the great wind; but that should happen after all earthly preparations have been made.
For instance: we need to select or create hurricane shelters that are worthy of the name: places where people can go and feel safe, not only from the winds and waters outside, but also from the other people within those walls. We need to change the way we prepare, stock, man and organize those buildings we call “shelters”; and we need to ensure that there are enough of them within clusters of population to make people willing to evacuate to them. It’s clear to me that there are not enough hurricane shelters of any kind in New Providence to serve our population of over a quarter of a million people, and I am not confident that those buildings identified as “shelters” will not, like some of those in Abaco, fall in and crush those staying there in the middle of a storm.
Surely we can change that fact.
For another instance: we need to organize and train volunteer crews of rescuers—people who, like the jet ski and small boat operators in Grand Bahama, are willing to go out in the immediate aftermath of a storm, some of them even during the storm—to save lives. Such people should be cultivated and encouraged, trained and even given subsidies to prepare them for such activity. Like the home guard during the British Blitz, these people could be volunteers trained and equipped by the government to enable them to be their neighbours’ keepers—a true-true public/private partnership.
For a third instance: we need to permit our government to invest in the best emergency equipment available, not the cheapest, and we need to support our government’s diversion of funds to those things that are necessary for the survival of our citizenry during a mega-storm: things like satellite phones and radios that will work under the worst conditions, things like the parts that keep RBDF vessels running in tip-top shape. We cannot count pennies when it comes to the lives of our people; but it’s clear that for too long we have been doing just that.
So. Like my sixteen-year-old self in the search and rescue team I joined, we need to start preparing—training—ourselves to handle what we are not sure will come. For know this: we can prepare better for mega-storms. And, given the tenor of the times—we must.
I could go on, but I won’t, not right now. Instead, let me leave you with the vision of the storm that I’ve found most arresting: a photo taken by Jim Edds (@ExtremeStorms) at Hope Town from within Dorian’s eye.