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Disaster self help


If Barbadians ever need a vivid reminder of the power of nature to catapult us from relative comfort to absolute misery, we only need to look northward toward Haiti.

And if we doubt the almost certain inability of our neighbours to offer little more than words of comfort, again we only need to look to Haiti.

It is now two and a half years since that country, which had grown accustomed to turmoil and hardship, was struck by a massive earthquake on January 12, 2010 — when Haitians found out they never really knew misery, certainly not on such a scale.

According to the Inter-American Development Bank, between 200,000 and 250,000 were killed when the earth shook; but the Haitian government has put the death toll at 316,000. Also, it is estimated that today almost a million persons are still living in displaced circumstances, while only a fraction of the $5.3 billion pledged by the world has been delivered and rebuilding this country is still a sputtering effort.

While Haiti struggles, the rest of the region goes about its business, economic challenges notwithstanding. It is not hard to criticise CARICOM for not doing enough to assist Haiti, especially since the initial interventions, but the truth is that the scale of the disaster in Haiti dwarfs our own resources and economies.

It is therefore clear that the capacity of individual Caribbean countries to make an impact on the ground in Haiti is miniscule, but there is still a sense that as a grouping CARICOM has moved on and left the Haitian crisis in the background.

Add to that the not so infrequent pictures in the Bahamas press of Haitian refugees being rounded up as they land in the Bahamas in search of a better life, and we get a picture of a region that’s still overwhelmed two and a half years after the initial shock. We respect the right of any country to secure its borders, and certainly the size and vibrance (or lack thereof) of our economies don’t allow for unchecked migration, but each of these episodes reinforces our need for improved regional cooperation.

Just as important for us in Barbados at the individual and national level, particularly at this time of year, we ought to be forever mindful of the potential destruction that looms to our east. As our emergency planners have repeated so often, it does not matter so much how many hurricanes are forecast for a particular season since it only takes one to devastate.

Unfortunately, we should also all be fully aware by now that given the size of the weather systems that come our way, the probability that multiple islands will be impacted is always high. This often means that the capacity of others to offer emergency response and assistance could be severely hampered. And as we said earlier, even if our neighbours are not directly impacted, the daily problems each faces does not leave much excess capacity of resources to spread around. The desire to help will outstrip by far the ability to.

Cold as it may seem, regional mechanisms for emergency disaster relief notwithstanding, each island’s best insurance, it would appear right now, is in the preparation of its people to meet whatever disaster may come their way.

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