Insensitive!

We remain our usual selfish, navel-gazing, egocentric, insensitive selves and, burying our heads in the sand as it were, we see nothing coming

February 1960

Carol. I was 13-going-on-14 when the strongest ever cyclone of the 20th century Carol hit Mauritius (MRU) in the night of 27-Feb-1960. After a considerable lull lasting several hours next morning, it continued its devastation during day-time on 28-Feb-1960 flattening anything that it had spared the previous night.

There had been a death in our street on 27-Feb-1960 and, according to the Baitka’s rules, every member had to attend the funeral wake. However because of the prevailing cyclonic conditions and repeated radio warnings that we had a big one coming, an exception was made by the baitka leaders allowing teenage boys to replace the head of the family. Thus it was that I found myself spending that eventful night in place of my dad at the Cheemantoos, with Carol’s 256-kph winds pounding away outside accompanied by incessant rains.

As the eye of the cyclone passed over MRU next morning, all those of us in attendance took advantage of the ensuing lull and headed back home. Along the way everything — trees, the local shop, the baitka and 90pc of the mostly wood-and-thatch houses — lay flat on the ground. We had to fight our way over dozens of mature trees fallen prey to the gale force winds, innumerable branches, heaps of green and half ripe fruits, corrugated iron sheets from house roofs and debris of all kinds.

Naively I imagined that our house would have been spared but, as I entered the grounds, I noticed that the roof had collapsed onto the walls. The holding wooden structure supporting the roof and the sides of the house had obviously given way. Undeterred I made my way gingerly inside the roof-space through a hole, hoping my parents and siblings were alright.

Despair and Devastation. But there was no one there. Like the rest of the inhabitants in our street, they had fled to the solid concrete house of our next-door neighbour. As I surveyed the scene of despair and devastation around me with all our stuff — pieces of furniture, foodstuff, items of clothes, crockery, cutlery, etc — strewn all over the sodden floor, I just could not help bursting into tears at the sight of all my precious school-books scattered there, mostly torn to pieces. My comprehensive stamp collection was another casualty. After an eternity standing amidst the debris, I wiped my tears and went out to find my family.

In just 24-hours, Carol managed to destroy 100k homes leaving 70k of the 600k MRU population to seek shelter in refugee centres. Whilst some stronger houses in towns were spared, most of the poorer housing in the rural areas were torn apart. Miraculously the casualty list was relatively small with only 42 deaths and 1.7k injured. However given the shortage of money and transport (made even more difficult by Carol) and poor service in the NHS at the time, many more injured probably did not turn up at treatment centres, and therefore went unreported.

Friendly countries offered to help. The British Colonial Office (MRU was a colony of HM QEII at the time) allocated a measly GBP 2m for medication/sanitation — not a word about the much-needed reconstruction. And some people wondered why we needed Independence in our poverty! Perhaps because it was something tangible I still remember the donation from India; every household received a jute bag containing cooking utensils, a certain length of cloth and a few pounds of edible grains.

 November 2013

Haiyan. Four years ago, super Typhoon Haiyan devastated much of S-E Asia, particularly the Philippines which is made up of some 7.6k islands, and home to 100m souls. Travelling westward from Micronesia Haiyan’s winds hit some parts of that country at 300-kph and, along with massive rainfall and storm surges, it left some 6.3k people dead in its wake.

I remember a vivid TV reportage form Cebu Island showing the scene of despair and desolation; and the similarities with MRU in 1960 were striking. As the camera panned across the scene of destruction there was hardly one solid structure left standing. Thus there was no shelter for the thousands of homeless people to hide from the scorching sun/rain during daytime nor from the cold/rain at night. With every facility destroyed by the Typhoon, there was hardly any drinking never mind any food for the beleaguered 2.8m inhabitants on Cebu.

Memories of Carol came flooding back, with a particular teenage boy standing amidst the microcosmic representation of despair and devastation under the collapsed roof of a particular house.

Succour. Answering calls from the UN and the Filipino government many countries rushed in to offer help. In total cash donation amounted to USD 546m and non-cash humanitarian aid totaled USD 72m. Obviously richer countries’ contributions were the largest with the UK leading the way with USD 121m, followed by USA with USD 90m, Australia USD 65m, Japan USD 63m and Canada USD 59m. But when you are in despair and dire need, much succour is derived from the moral support that even the smallest donation brings. The poorest nation Bangladesh pledged USD1m and Vietnam donated USD 100k.

Insensitive. I waited. Patiently. Foolishly! Yes I waited for the authorities to react. My friend Keshraj and I wanted to add our own little personal contribution from our small Old Age Pension to either a GM donation or a public Teledon. But the silence was deafening, and nothing came to pass.

In the end I rang a friend at MACOSS to enquire if they were doing anything through one of their members. The answer was an emphatic NO. In fact I got the impression that the subject had not even been raised at the NGO-apex. I could not believe the uncaring INSENSITIVITY of it all, especially from a SIDS that is used to be hit by cyclonic disasters of its own.

In the end I contacted a friend in the UK who advised me to send any contribution to the central NGO which was collating all cash and non-cash donations to the Filipino Typhoon Fund. Mission finally accomplished.

August/September 2017

Harvey, Irma and now Maria. Hurricane Harvey hit the Caribbean, and continued on to the USA, in the first week of September with a maximum wind speed of 215-kph. Close on its heels, Irma followed with wind speeds reaching a maximum of 296-kph. Besides the strong winds, both hurricanes were accompanied by massive amounts of rainfall and storm surges leaving many places under flood waters. As I am writing this piece on 22-Sep-2017 Maria is pounding away at Puerto Rico with a maximum wind speed of 175-kph. But we have to bear in mind that everything has already been fragilized by Harvey and Irma, thus making Maria’s job a lot easier.

Like MRU, most of the Caribbean SIDS rely heavily on tourism for employment and foreign exchange. With infrastructure including holiday resorts in tatters, they will be facing a long uphill struggle to re-establish their facilities and regain their markets. It has been estimated that USD1bn will be needed to rebuild the string of Caribbean SIDS starting with Barbados in SE-Caribbean, through to St Kitts, Dominica and Bahamas in NW-Caribbean.

Extremes. Climate scientist Professor MA Taylor of the University of the West Indies observes that “We seem to be entering into a new climate regime… extreme drought, extreme hurricane, extreme rainfall events.” He adds that “we may not see more hurricanes, but more intense hurricanes… as they form, they then quickly develop into category 3 or 4, so by the time they interact with any land, they are at a very life-threatening stage.” Serious stuff to contemplate particularly for cyclone-prone SIDS like MRU!

Thus in future infrastructure will need to be designed to withstand the very intense hurricanes, not only as on as a one-off events but as repeated phenomena. To achieve the kind of infrastructure that may be needed to face future cyclones, we may need to seek assistance from the UN Warsaw Mechanism for Loss and Damage (UN-WMLD) which is the main international body “to promote the implementation of approaches to address loss and damage in a comprehensive, integrated and coherent manner.” Inshalah!

Response. In the meantime it would have been nice to hear GM/NGOs at least offer sympathy to those hapless victims of Harvey, Irma and Maria — in the Caribbean SIDS as well as the southern USA beyond. But we remain our usual selfish, navel-gazing, egocentric, insensitive selves and, burying our heads in the sand as it were, we see nothing coming. Like Gandhiji’s 3-wise monkeys we are happy using both of our hands to hide the 3-senses so that we see nothing, we hear nothing and we say nothing!

There are times when I am very, very ashamed to be a Mauritian.

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