Hurricane Irma: A Surge of Calamities

It’s cyclone in Mauritius, typhoon in Taiwan, hurricane/storm or tornado in the US, but they all mean the same: monster on the march!

In this world of 24/7, non-stop bombardment with information of all kinds and coming through channels of a bewildering variety (at least it seems so for senior citizens) and ever-changing range – with Apple launching its latest iPhone X a few days ago –, one cannot escape taking notice of what is happening all over the world. Mostly we do it passively in the comfort of our sitting-rooms, especially when it concerns events taking place far away from our shores and that do not impact us in any direct way.

On the other hand is also the fact that practically everyone these days has family, relatives, friends or acquaintances in different parts of the world where they are either settled, pursuing studies, or simply visiting. As a consequence, the equation changes, and we find ourselves taking interest in places that would otherwise normally not be on our watch. In an earlier article I had pointed out how I started to keep abreast of the situation in Mauritania – because at the WHO regional headquarters which was then in Harare, Zimbabwe, I had become very good friends with the programme director who was from Mauritania and was not only my look-alike but we also developed a ‘brotherly’ friendship during the time that we interacted. To the point that he invited me to come over to his country someday and that if this happened, then he would take me to meet his 80-plus year old mother who lived in her tent in the desert, who he visited every time he went back home on leave. No need to say that I was excited at the prospect, but unfortunately it did not materialize.

And so to North America, where the calamities that have been succeeding each other almost back to back have riveted my attention. First it was hurricane Harvey that battered Texas. As the hurricane moved on and the floods overwhelmed Houston, a city 600 square miles in area with a population of 6 million, I checked the map to see whether it would go as far as Austin and Dallas where I have relatives and friends. Fortunately for them, Harvey did not reach there.

And over the last weekend, starting Friday until late Sunday night, I was all eyes and ears as I watched the graphic images of hurricane Irma unleashing its fury across the Caribbean and Florida, gathering force to become Category 5 with wind speeds that reached 185 miles per hour. I quickly became familiar with all the major places that were going to be affected, from Miami to Florida Keys, going on to Naples, Tampa then Orlando and on to Melbourne, Daytona Beach and Jacksonville before moving on more inland towards Georgia and South Carolina.

My thoughts went to the kindred soul who had gone to Orlando on a much-needed break, but also to be with family, and I worried whether there had been or would arise a need to seek refuge in a shelter, as almost 175,000 people had already done in Southern Florida. I breathed a sigh of relief late on Sunday when the meteorologists announced that Irma had diminished in force, being brought down to a tropical storm level, as it moved further north and east from Tampa towards Orlando. Pending news that may come my way later, I silently prayed that things would have worked out fine.

monsters on the march!

Hurricane Irma came in the wake of hurricane Harvey, and around that time too a strong earthquake hit Mexico causing dozens of deaths there, not to speak of the destruction that has been caused. Out west in California, forest fires were raging over thousands of acres, challenging the capacity of the authorities to cope, and firefighters had to be flown in from Texas even as it was itself going under water from the rains that Harvey had unleashed on the land. On the other side of the world massive floods in Bihar had displaced thousands and engulfed a large number of lives, and still counting, with Mumbai too spiraling into chaos – thankfully short-lived – as monsoon rains lashed over the city. News has come of typhoon Talim that is threatening Taiwan, which not so long ago was battered by a very violent one. The authorities have already issued a warning, and flights have been cancelled as the Taiwanese brace themselves once more to face the onslaught of the imminent typhoon.

Just an aside about nomenclature: it’s cyclone in Mauritius, typhoon in Taiwan, hurricane/storm or tornado in the US, but they all mean the same: monster on the march!

According to experts, climate change may not have caused these calamities, the hurricanes in particular, but it is fact that the average global temperature has been rising, and this undoubtedly is a factor in increasing the tendency to such catastrophic meteorological phenomena. Even a variation of as little as 0.5 degrees in temperature can make a huge difference in the amount of rainfall, the force of the winds and the gusts, the speed of the hurricane and so on. By the same token, that apparently explains why droughts tend to be even more severe in the already dry regions where they occur, which are becoming even drier as a result of the climate change.

As the saying goes, the extent and scale of the damage caused by these calamities is mind-boggling. For those of my generation, as I have had the opportunity to mention before, ground zero as far as cyclones are concerned is Carol that hit us in 1960, and all subsequent cyclones are compared to it – or her? For those born later, the reference is Gervaise in 1975 I think, and Hollanda in 1994. It would be recalled that post-Hollanda we had the touni minuit phenomenon, a mass hysteria that caused panic in Lallmatie and other localities for a good few days.

In fact, Irma was being compared to hurricane Donna which too occurred in 1960, in September, in Florida, coming from the Antilles. It caused as extensive damage as Irma has done, especially in the Caribbean where the Virgin islands, St Martin and Barbuda have practically been razed to the ground and the spectacle there is like that of a war zone. The death toll for Donna was 344, and so far for Irma it’s only in double digits, most casualties being in the Caribbean. Mercifully nascent hurricanes that were threatening – Katia and Jose – have dissipated; otherwise the only thing that would have happened is most likely a complete wipe-out of these islands.

Carol’s ‘morning after’

Which was pretty much our first impression on Carol’s ‘morning after.’ Painful memories came back as out of curiosity I searched Google for hurricane Donna – and there, side by side, were pictures of post-Carol and post-Donna. Rubble and piled up destroyed buildings look the same everywhere, and that’s what struck me in these pictures.

And it is therefore not difficult for us to imagine what the inhabitants of Florida are going through as the laborious, painful process of starting all over again resumes, with those who had taken refuge in shelters returning to face – as those in Texas did but a few days before them – homes still flooded with toxic waste water, ‘damaged everything’ from kitchenware to contents of wardrobes including personal memorabilia and cherished photographs beyond salvage, and a host of such shocks that knock one straight in the heart.

At the latest, 15 million people in Florida out of the state’s 20 million were without power. Over 17 000 personnel of one power supplier were on the ground to remedy the situation as soon as possible – but people have been told that it’s going to take a few weeks before anything like near-normal returns. Priority is being given to hospitals, water pumps, nursing homes and other such critical facilities. That is why for individual homes it’s going to take longer.

I was naturally interested in how the health sector was coping. Ahead of the hurricane, evacuations had already begun, and the following gives an idea of the scale, as reported in a newspaper: ‘As of Friday morning, 17 hospitals along with 117 assisted living facilities, 33 nursing homes, and 46 other facilities have transferred their patients elsewhere, according to the Florida Department of Health.’ Further, ‘these precautions parallel a mass civilian evacuation in Southern Florida, which is mandatory in much of Miami-Dade County, home to 2.7 million people.’ As the hurricane rolled on, in fact over 6.5 million people were advised to evacuate. And as I have noted, it is almost impossible for us to imagine such orders of magnitude from our small island perspective.

I will conclude as I did regarding hurricane Harvey: ‘For having similarly suffered in the past, let us remember them (the victims of the hurricane) in our prayers and wish them bon courage.’

 

  • Published in print edition on 15 September 2017

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