Stormy Weather

Before I launch into my thoughts about Tropical Depression/Storm Nicole and the devastating impact she had on Jamaica, let us pause to enjoy the beauty that is Stormy Weather by Lena Horne (which popped into my mind when I named this post)

Listen as you read, actually.  Beautiful.  And calming before I delve into Tropical Depression/Storm Nicole…

I will do my best to refrain from using “inclement” or “lashing”  of “fury” during this mini rant-cum-questioning post.  Why you ask? Because I’ve had my FILL of those words being used in articles and reporting from Jamaica…so has @anniepaul who wrote about the overuse of “inclement” in Inclement Times: Tropical Storm Nicole.”  Now, Miss Nicole, WHERE did you come from?

What wrath Nicole unleashed on Jamaica earlier this week.  Her passage over Jamaica has made me wonder about two things: (1) the extent of damage especially along the island’s south coast and (2) what in God’s name is going on with the newspapers in Jamaica.  Two very different things but I’m going to tackle both; the second will be in my next post.

Surely it’s unusual for a mere depression that strengthens into a storm to be so destructive?  I mean, this wasn’t a hurricane…I don’t even think it was close to being categorized as such.  As tweets filled my timeline about Nicole I realized that things were not going well.  At. All.  And I wondered just what the hell the country would have looked like if she was Hurricane Nicole, even a a category one? We couldn’t manage. We could not manage. My mind drifts back to some years ago and the passage of some hurricane, whose name I now forget, over Haiti and the massive destruction that resulted.  Then, “we” agreed that deforestation in Haiti was really the main cause of the many landslides, death, and destruction…what will we agree, if that is at all possible among Jamaicans, is the cause of the damage and destruction in Jamaica post-Nicole?

The pictures I’ve seen of the destruction include roads split open, sand and silt in roads, bridges washed away or covered by water, and homes & business washed away.  I am horrified, awed, and dismayed.  I am also heartbroken about the homes that were built in and allowed to be built in precarious locations to house poor people…one home built on the banks of the Sandy Park Gully washed away during Nicole; there is little hope of recovering any of the occupants alive.

Collage of some areas of Jamaica after & during Nicole

Several observations are instinctive and explanations and questions spring to mind.  Jamaica’s infrastructure is in a woeful state.  The drought that assaulted the country for much of this year is still being felt; I think that part of the reason Nicole  was so destructive is because the ground was still hard from insufficient rain.  Consequently, it could not absorb much of Nicole’s rain.  There is also an issue, I think, with our gullies and other routes to the sea being blocked.  So many causes for that but improper garbage disposal and environmentally insensitive construction spring to mind.

The split open road is Barbican Road, which I gather was being worked on the National Works Agency (NWA) but even then the damage is stunning.  Was there an earthquake accompanying Nicole?  There was a tornado so perhaps an EQ decided to join the party.  Why not? Jamaica is party central.  To me  that split indicates several things: poor materials, poor maintenance, overuse of the road or the road not being built to withstand the traffic it must bear, or just a poorly built road.  Same for East King’s House Road (pictured above) and for this road in McGregor Gully

A section of the road in the McGregor Gully community

The silt and sand washed into roads are either from a deposit meant for construction…or from our hills.  If it’s the latter then we have a serious problem occurring on our hillsides that goes by the name deforestation.  No, it’s not just about obviously stripped bare hillsides that we’re accustomed to seeing like here

A stripped Haitian hillside

or a deceptively beautiful pattern like here

East Kalimantan province in Indonesia

It’s really about land being cleared for farming or housing or mining or logging in an unsustainable manner with an insufficient number of replacement trees being replanted.  It’s about need and poverty and the immediacy of those things weighing heavy on the minds of the poor.  It’s also about topsoil – you know, the bit of soil rich with nutrients, being washed away into roads and gullies and onto homes.  Honestly I’d not really thought that this could be a problem in Jamaica because at the forefront of my mind is the vivid and lush green that I see was the plane approaches Norman Manley…more so than the hills that form the backdrop to the Carib Cement Company.  But after Nicole? I am indeed concerned, and I think that we need to investigate what’s going on in and on our hills.  I understand that right now people are trying to get back to normal, to sweep mud and water out of homes, to replant lost crops and replace dead animals…those things weigh heavy.  But I’d hope – yes I still have lots of that where Jamaica is concerned – that from the smallest community all the way to Gordon House we begin to think about how we interact with our environment and change our behaviour where necessary.

As for the businesses and homes still being built on gully banks and in river beds…I am torn.  I sincerely feel for the lives lost; I really really do. But I can’t help but feel angry that after all the rain, storms, and hurricanes that Jamaica has experienced that we still engage in such risky behaviour.  Come on people!  Water scares me (and no it’s not because I cannot swim) because it has no master; it moves in its own way, shifts intensity at its whim, moves at its own pace, and always rediscovers it course.  A dry river bed now will not be that way when the rain falls.  Do not build there or too close it its banks.  It is dangerous.

Jamaica has a squatter problem, yes, but at the very least can we point people in the direction of safe land!! Or, can we implement some sort of affordable housing program that helps those who need the help to build livable and safe structures? Poverty has an astronomical price tag.  How many more times are we going to shake our heads and mourn for lives lost because ramshackle homes slip into gullies or down hillsides whenever it rains?  That kind of thing is not only emotionally constly, but puts extra strain on an already incredibly burdened economy and society.

As for businesses and other ventures: environmental assessments need to be done *cough* Palisadoes Road *cough* and planning permission denied when there is a serious threat either to the environment or to life & business because of the precarious environment where construction is proposed.  I raised this issue of oversight by relevant government agencies before and I shall continue to bang that drum until I see change for the better.  In my twitter exchange with @nigel_thomas about what to do with businesses that build where they should not – say at the Marketplace complex (pictured above in the collage) – I tweeted that they should not be allowed to build and should be fined for doing so. Massive and burdensome fines that, hopefully, will deter them from being dolts. (And yes, leave aside the issue of government management of fines and other revenue…for now.)  We cannot continue to do the same things over and over, expect different results, and scratch our heads when we don’t get those results.  That’s a recipe for failure, not an indication of persistence.

So many issues Jamaica has to tackle…so much to do but I do think that much of it is doable with a comprehensive development plan and strong, transparent, and sensible leadership.  But it will also require an engaged and active population that doesn’t depend on a central authority to attend to all its needs but yet still demands accountability from that government regarding the things for which it is responsible.

Right now the country is still reeling I think because I don’t think this level of damage was expected.  As the clean up and recovery continues I hope that communities don’t depend on the government to come in and “rescue” them.  Though given the last 5-7 or so years of Jamaican politics I don’t know how anyone could still have faith in this crop of “leaders” to “rescue” them.  Myeh.  Instead, we need to do what we can and used to go about doing quite often for ourselves.  Where safe and possible clean up your community, help your neighbour.  Not to be nostalgic but this is how I remember Jamaica.  After Gilbert, my community got together and helped each other to fix up and move forward, and I got the impression that this was the same in other communities.  Now?  I wonder if we remember what it’s like to help each for the sake of simply being kind and neighbourly…?  I pray and hope that we do…and I pray that whatever other storms are forming off the coast of Africa tittup across the Atlantic and away from the Caribbean.  Please, Lord, we need a break!

p.s. please remember to take my poll Are you a volunteer?

15 Responses to “Stormy Weather”
  1. CJ says:

    On Stormy Weather, let’s get back to geography basics – what is a depression and a storm?
    a) tropical depression – they form from a tropical wave or tropical disturbance. The maximum 1-minute sustained surface wind is 38 mph/62 kph or less.

    b) tropical Storm – they pose a threat to life and/or property in coastal areas. The 1-minute sustained surface wind ranges 39-73 mph/62-117 kph.

    Now that we have that sorted out, I hope that it helps you to see why Nicole caused so much damage.

    Nicole in her early days as a tropical wave, sat over Barbados for more than 2 days. The whole island was grey or dark grey for that period. This is not usual here. More importantly, the non-stop, heavy rains resulted in flash flood warnings and watches across the island. I should point out that there was also a lot of lightening and thunder.

    When you track the movement of the system, you could see that it was heading to Jamaica and passing over the Caribbean Sea meant that it would gain strength. We should have been prepared for it. Plus, when you look at the size of the system and the intensity of the colour (orange used in the photos) you know that it meant trouble. Then again, since it was not a hurricane, ‘ah nuh nutten!’

    On the matter of the loss of lives, our continued failure to implement our planning laws will result in more of the same. Yes, it sounds callous, but its a reality. I don’t think that we understand that our freedom to do as we please, e.g. constructing homes on the banks of our gullies or living in a riverbed – sections of August Town, has implications for the individuals and the country as a whole. Then again, when ‘u are a suffera’ or ‘have enough money’, the laws of the land don’t apply to you. So you get the loss of property and lives due to flooding. While we have ODPEM, we as a people are yet to seriously embrace the issue of disaster risk management.

    Do you realise that every year, for say the last 3 years, we have been having serious damage due flooding during the hurricane season and that every year we have been caught with our knickers down – we are not prepared for it. We have convenient amnesia about historical weather trends and events in our neck of the woods. Our seniors can tell you about the ‘power’ of Sandy Park Gully and several other gullies in the Corporate area or September rain. Its not new, it just skipped a generation or two so we have forgotten about it. Issues of climate are long-term, the trends are there.

    Regarding the deforestation, that is a ‘big ole’ open, weeping, sore full of puss, that will continue to deteriorate and cause even more damage until we take serious calculated steps to tackle the problem across the entire island. As first year geography students we used to sit on the department’s steps, look at the hills around the campus and wonder if were rocket scientists. Why wasn’t anyone doing anything about the deforestation, don’t they know that overtime, the Mona dam is going have more silt in it than water, don’t they know about the implications for the aquifers, don’t they know that the Hope River will cause serious damage in Harbour View? That was 32 years ago. What has changed? More houses, businesses built officially and unofficially. Our informal settlements have grown, if your are distressed now wait till a category 3-5 storm hits Jamaica and comes up the Kingston Harbour or there is an earthquake along the Jacks Hill fault line.

    I need to point out that if there is vegetation cover, no matter how hard the ground is, when it rains more of the water will be absorbed and there will be less run-off. However, systems like Nicole that continuously dump tons of water over a short space of time are going to cause damage even if you maintain your gullies, drains, road side verges, etc. By the way, McGregor Gully is an on-going project, its never repaired properly and that is from my high school days. Why? Its one way to ensure that there will be more work. Politricks …

    As aside, you know that the President was contractor. His firm worked on the Sandy Gully, ofcourse it was the section that was closer to his neck of the woods, who else could get that job. Anyway, as far as I can see no reports of it being washed away or collapsing. Seemed as if they did ‘good’ construction work. Yes I had to qualify the ‘good’.

    It nearly noon and its been cloudy. More rains in this neck of the woods … wonder what this means for the rock in the coming weeks?

    • Thanks for your comment, especially the definitions. O you’re quite right about being unprepared. I just didn’t feel like unleashing on the ODPEM because that’s a dead horse. Our collective amnesia, that’s not news CJ; we forget very quickly about most everything these days. We remember Manatt because it’s brought up regularly but the 73+ who died in TG? Forgotten. I’m beginning to understand & accept that living in Ja is just damned hard. People are trying to move from day to day & address immediate needs. All of this to say that the psychological burdens are great & underestimated. I wonder if it is, too, that we’ve been conditioned to jump at “hurricane” (and earthquake) but dismiss everything else, when the fact is that any weather system that can dump tremendous amounts of rain in a short amount of time is dangerous and requires attention and preparation.

      As for your geo lessons: these are also things I also learned in 1st & 2nd form a mere 17 years ago. Basic basic things that I’ve never understood HOW we COULD forgot.

      You also raise the good point of talking to older folks about the power of certain areas (gullies, rivers). They’re a lost resource for us but such a valuable one. Sometimes research and topography studies aren’t the only things we can do to know what to expect in a particular area or how to build…

  2. YardEdge says:

    thanks for this thoughtful response to our current post-Nicole predicament. can’t help but feeling discouraged again that we seemed destined to continually repeat our mistakes and unpreparedness over and over again. i’m beginning to wonder if we (all of us, leaders and led) really care that much…are we just way too casual about everything? are we too hardened? too tired? too “cyan bodda” minded? not sure what it’s going to take for us to wake up and smell the roses/coffee, hopefully not something so catastrophic that we’ll all be weeping and wailing about what we should have done. anyway, hope springs eternal. i know there are many out there who do care and try to do what they can…hopefully the next generation will do better than we have been able to do so far.

    • You’re welcome & thanks for commenting. I ask many of the same questions you do, with no satisfactory answers…but I think it’s important to keep asking, which hopefully will provoke people (ALL of us) into actions. And I don’t even mean grand, revolutionary-type action but just basic care and thoughtfulness about ourselves and our neighbours; rebuilding a sense of community and can-do-ness is surely an improvement over the current state of things. I hope that you & family weren’t too badly affected by Nicole.

    • Jhanelle Allen says:

      i think ‘cyant badda’ is a big part. then for the few who are concerned enough, they’re exhausted because no one else takes them seriously. i find a lot of ppl fall back on ‘a so di ting set’ and then leave it at that because they feel they cant effect any change. in anything. also, for the few who are concerned and try, they dont get much positive reinforcement because most ppl think SOMETHING should be done by SOMEONE and then that SOMEBODY will get around to doing it. and if it doesnt happen then, ‘bwoy, a so di ting set yah man’

  3. Jhanelle Allen says:

    I didn’t get to finish reading this because of time constraints but for the parts I did read…you’ve echoed some of my sentiments Renee. I saw some pictures quickly while trying to see what’s going on before work and some of the houses etc I was like damn! Why were those there?! I was just talking to a friend of mine last night when he was updating me on them finding some bodies and whatnot and I was just thinking geez, so sad because some of the places these buildings are built just dont look like they meet “code”. The good thing about our buildings for the most part is that most ppl use reinforced concrete so the building itself likely will not crumble on itself BUT there are so many things built in wrong places or just the type of buildings are not suitable for location. It’s a disaster waiting to happen and it kinda goes both ways. People dont always get the proper approvals for building and the folks/offices they should get approval from is either barely existent, slightly functional, highly corrupt, expensive or a combination of all that.

    As for infrastructure…smh *sigh* oh lord! We barely have roads and what we do have dont take into account the science of our climate/weather. It definitely does not take into account the kind of traffic it has to support. We have things like overweight trucks on the same road as a simple car. With time the trucks ruin the road, then certain places are rainier than others but no good drainage system around or built in the road design. Just general upkeep for routine wear and tear is always lagging behind. It will have to start somewhere, and it wont be good immediately but we’ve got to use more than just a bag of cement or one thin layer of barber green to fix this.

    Oh and as I remember…. the hills. Man, Renee, in general we love using things that seem to not be owned by anyone (occupy a piece of land, take sand from that river…) and no one really thinks about next week let alone few years from now, so no one replants a tree or wonders what will happen if we all keep taking stones and sand from the river banks. It would be good if we could get more jamaicans to realize recycling and things of that nature are not just foreign ideas. That will be a hell of a challenge though because ppl just set a certain way and resist change. I’ve been trying for YEARS to have my grandmother burn less and hahaha smh, I dont know that I’ve accomplished anything. She’d just do it when I’m not there because she’s stubborn like that and its just what she’s used to. You sweep, you burn. Regardless of what it is. Regardless of an asthmatic in the house that technically could have an exacerbation from fumes of what you’re burning—which by the way is technically illegal to burn lol. And, as illegal as it is, would the cops even come give her citation or a verbal warning? Would they even show up at all?

    • Thanks for comment, J, I know how tight your schedule is! You’ve reached into my mind and pulled out more comments on this mattes, especially about recycling and better environmental stewardship (tree planting and not building in a dangerous area). Our infrastructure: built with reinforced steel and good concrete but what good is that if the foundation or topography of the area is unstable?

      CJ commented that the old people among us would be able to point out the trouble spots, and I agree, but do we seek their counsel? We don’t even use our own common sense most of the time! Like, seriously, HOW can it be a good thing to build on a gully bank?? Even in my memory I can think of times when roads Sandy Gully (and other gullies) were impassable or maybe because Mommy had her geography and research training and exposure that she was able to plant warnings in my head. Point is, these experiences with floods and where is flood prone are not new!

      Jamaica needs therapy!
      Next time I see your gran I’m gonna tackle her about that burning!! Maybe likkle outside pressure will help…hopefully LOL.

  4. You should take up some of these issues via letter/s to the editor of one/both of the Jamaican dailies. Jamaica is facing a tough time–callousness and stubborness among us, coupled with weak, often self-serving leaders etc., etc..

    I must confess to a sense of hopelessness for my country, despite efforts to ‘keep hope alive’. Anyway, we all should do what we can to help to more things forward. That includes things as simple as always giving an honest day’s work — that would be a major boost to our productivity.

    • You know Marcia I used to write letters to the editor, sometimes 1 per week. But I tapered off due to some personal issues and a general feeling that I was speaking into the wilderness. O and there was the issue of being threatened via email because of one my letters…but that’s another story. So, part of the reason I started this blog was to have the flexibility to address an issue whenever I wanted to and not have to deal with the ill-equipped editorial pen of the Jamaica Gleaner and Jamaica Observer. But, now, after many years of not writing to them I realize that there is still much value in that sort of engagement. Thanks for the encouragement!

      I sincerely hope that you can find even a glimmer of hope within you to shine on Jamaica. To my mind I think that you still have some hope 🙂 I’m told that sometimes I have too much hope for Jamaica, and maybe with some things I do but truth be told, I hold on to come naiveté intentionally because that’s how I’m preventing myself from becoming bitter. Yes, that means I have to deal with some disappointment from time to time but I’m learning to cope with that anger and disappointment better each time…the bitterness & disillusionment I cannot handle. The latter leave too deep scars.

      An honest day’s work, as you point out, is a major thing, not to be underestimated at all. If that’s your example and way of investing some hope in Jamaica then so be it. You also write and tweet about salient issues, which I think is a good thing and a hopeful thing…so, more on LNG and on media matters, please, Miss Marcia!

  5. petchary says:

    I agree with every issue that is raised here… In Jamaica we don’t take “environmental issues” seriously, just as we don’t take “human rights issues” seriously. And we wonder why no progress is made. I am quite sure there is something wrong with the hills. It seems they are becoming increasingly unstable, probably due to deforestation. You can see this quite clearly on the Junction Road, where there is always a new patch of land – usually a steep hillside – that has been cleared. But as you say, we keep repeating the same mistakes. Environmentalists are like voices crying in the wilderness – indeed, like human rights activists (yes, I keep linking the two because I think it is meaningful) they are considered either eccentric, irritating or out of touch, irrelevant.
    I am actually sick and tired of seeing the same mistakes being repeated over and over, and no one learns from them. Even a five year old child will learn. Jamaica has never grown up, and never will if we continue on this path. I am not as optimistic as you.
    Thanks for the excellent and thought-provoking blog.

    • Thanks for commenting! I concur that environmental issues are closely linked with human rights issues; in fact, in law school I was encouraged to take a human rights law class because it would address issues of environmental justice and stewardship. They seem to fit well together – with environment being a subset of human rights – because the environment is a common good, something to which we all have access and which has to deal with the burdens of most of us using it with no thought of the responsibility to conserve it. As Jhanelle commented, we expect SOMEONE else to do SOMETHING not recognizing that the SOMEONES are ALL of us. No one pays attention to voices like ours until all hell breaks loose, and then we become doomsday prophets and soothsayers instead of serious contributors to policymaking.

      Junction Road is becoming dangerous. Last time I was home and drove there with family I took note of crumbling retaining walls, cleared hillsides, and eroding roads. Not to mention the trucks and large vehicles that use these roads and put much strain on roads not built for them.

      Can’t quibble too much with your self-confessed lack of optimism because, bwoy, Jamaica is not an easy thing to care about. I just hope that you’re still able and willing to prick consciences where it’s needed and able and willing to do what you can to be environmentally responsible, and as an example for others to emulate.

  6. Shumpynella says:

    My late dad worked w the PWD in Ja and always had issue with how the roads were built and maintained, and where structures were permitted to be built (yes, squatters but also businesses)…this is over a decade ago so I am not too surprised. Looks like there was an earthquake for real. I’m typing this without looking at comments so excuse me if I’ve strayed from the train of thought. Also, I certainly hope our sense of community wins out where recovering from this disaster is concerned.

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