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Families need closure

The events of Hurricane Ivan, and Tropical Storms Tomas, Ernesto, the Arch Cot ground collapse, the Joe’s River traffic accident, and the Campus Trendz fire; are both national emergency situations and personal tragedies. Each event precipitated different social, financial, and psychological recovery activities that were unique to each victim affected by the effects of each disaster scenario. The occurrence of each disaster has had a direct personal long-term impact on the lives of the victims and their families, and the social services of Barbados.

It also provides a comparative opportunity to review how the Barbadian society has dealt with each incident.

The events of Hurricane Ivan, and Tropical Storms Tomas and Ernesto were national emergencies that warranted the full attention of the government. It created situations in which the majority of the population was immediately affected by the events of the day. Hundreds of homes were damaged by the effects of the storms. The majority of the homes impacted were severely damaged and many of them had to be rebuilt with government assistance. Hurricane Ivan in 2004 saw government take a massive home recovery process involving over 500 houses that cost the government over $5 million dollars.

The government’s housing recovery programme also had to grapple with the issue of some qualified home repair applicants who died during the repair or rebuilding of the home. This scenario created an additional legal issue that had to be carefully answered. As has been seen in many situations, property owners who die without leaving a will or clear instructions for their materials possession, usually creates a scenario of infighting among relatives which eventually requires the intervention of the court to decide how the matter should be managed. In the case of the state’s housing recovery programme, this issue was jointly resolved through the welfare department’s intervention and the government’s legal advisors.

What was clearly understood is that while the property would be either be repaired or rebuilt, the ownership of the property would not be decided by who showed up to claim the property, but the production of clear evidence of proven family relations and the seniority of the relative. In other words, sons, daughters, and grandchildren were given priority to prove relationships, while cousins and other relatives had the more difficult task of providing proof.

For those persons who benefitted from the programme, there are many success stories of the programme. There has only been praise and thanks to those persons who managed the programme; many of those who benefitted were elderly, whose properties had never been designed to withstand a Hurricane Ivan; and there were others which had been in dire need of assistance before the arrival of Hurricane Ivan.

According to government sources, it was recommended that the 2004 Hurricane Ivan Housing Recovery Programme would be used as a model for future events of this type. There have been critics of the government’s Ivan housing recovery programme. One of the most flagrant criticisms heard was that there was some subtle political manipulation of the programme. However, investigation of the Ivan Housing programme by sections of the media could not uncover tangible evidence of these claims. However, there was some evidence that there were some property owners who tried to manipulate the same political infrastructure through apparent personal connections for personal gain, but failed to secure the appropriate response.

The material property loss to all home owners, including renters, was tremendous. The properties repaired or rebuilt by government were not insured and therefore qualified for government assistance. However, the same situation was even more traumatic for those victims who were renters; and the property owners faced the sometimes long administrative process of meeting the insurance company’s qualifiers before funds could be dispersed.

This process however, did not help the renter who was now homeless, with the majority of the contents of the home either rain-soaked or destroyed. Electronic items were ruined, and furniture and fittings were rain soaked, some to the point where they had to be dumped. For the renter, the situation became even more difficult. As a renter, the victim, though qualifying for some public assistance through the welfare system, still had the arduous task of finding another home that would still be within their financial reach.

In some cases, some of the renters were already behind in their rents to their landlord; which was now compounded by the storm. This situation, in some cases, provided the landlord with an opportunity to not renew the lease; or as was seen in some cases, not repair the property, thereby forcing the renter to look for alternative housing.

The Arch Cot ground collapse, the Joe’s River traffic accident, and the Campus Trendz fire, though not declared national emergencies, still required major infrastructural support; either during the event or as primary support after the fact. In each case there was death, severe injury, and major loss of property. In each case the graphic circumstances of the events warranted the attention of the entire Barbadian society. However, as in most cases of this type, the public’s attention and level of community eventually shifted to either then next media publicized crisis, or was once more internalized to their own personal troubles and social difficulties.

The Arch Cot event saw the staging of a major telethon for the survivors of the incident which remained as headline news for the entire duration of both the response and the recovery of the victims of the building collapse. It saw the appointment of a Board of trustees to monitor the fair distribution of the collected donations. Government allocated emergency housing for the surrounding properties which were deemed as unsafe by engineering authorities and consultants on the site.

There has been however, a complaint raised by the families of the victims of Arch Cot, that public attention to the event has waned, and that no one seems to remember or care about the events of that tragic day. There have also been comments raised is some forums as to who was liable for such a tragedy and what or who, would be responsible for compensating the families of the victims. What must be noted is that in the case of Arch Cot, the event only directly affected a small group of persons; the physical impact was restricted to one small area of a community. However, the trauma of the event affected an entire nation.

The same can be said for the Joes River Accident; however those affected either as victims, as survivors, or as family members of those killed in the accident was greater in number than Arch Cot. The similarity in both events is even further highlighted in the events of the Campus Trendz Fire. Once again, public demand for an improvement in the managerial services and legislative systems that were deemed to be inefficient, as a result of examining the causative factors of all three incidents have not yet addressed to the satisfaction of the families of the survivors and victims of all three events.

One family recently noted at a public memorial that unless significant corrective steps were taken, there was a very high possibility of the reoccurrence of similar events in the future. Is it fair to say that this is not an easily exhausted subject? Is it fair to say that for the survivors of all of the events that their personal ordeals are not over? Are the beneficiaries of the government’s housing recovery programme better off today and leading productive lives? Or has the repair or rebuilding of a house only answered the question of shelter but not psychological and sociological needs that still remain unanswered? Will the families of any traumatic event that includes death and destruction ever truly recover? I will bring some of the possible answers from social scientists and a psychologist next week as we conclude our closer look at the human side of disaster recovery.

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