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Humanitarian, economic crisis
in St Lucia
A humanitarian and economic crisis. This was how St Lucia’s Prime Minister Dr Kenny Anthony described the effects of the powerful weather system which devastated the island from the early hours of Christmas Eve well into Christmas morning. Five people lost their lives, including a policeman who rescued people trapped in their homes. Moments after, a wall collapsed on top of him.
Surrounded by crates of bottled water and disposable diapers, Anthony spoke to 16 members of T&T’s media at the cargo bay of St Lucia’s Hewanorra Airport on Friday afternoon. Media representatives accompanied staff of the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) and the Office of the Prime Minister to St Lucia on a chartered flight, BW 3434, to deliver goods, which also included bottled water, blankets and food.
The flight, which was supposed to leave Piarco Airport at 12.30 pm on Friday, was delayed several times, as the plane took four hours to load. Then, when members of the media finally boarded around 3.30 pm, they were ordered off by the captain, who was awaiting authorisation to land in St Lucia. After waiting again for some 20 minutes the plane finally took off on its brief trip, landing in St Lucia around 7 pm and flying out again about 90 minutes later.
Just before he spoke to the media, Anthony said, he had visited several affected communities, including his constituency of Vieux Fort South. Pointing to his black shoes, covered with mud, Anthony said: “Most people have lost everything. They have lost clothing, appliances, beds, furniture—everything. And most people have to spend the night in shelters.” Villages on St Lucia’s west coast, Anse La Raye and Canaries, were also very badly hit.
To compound matters, many of the displaced are jobless. Describing them as “basically very poor,” Anthony added: “What you have here is a humanitarian crisis. Crisis in the sense that they have lost all their belongings and they are persons without means, already reeling from very serious economic problems because of the economic crisis we have to contend with, as many homes have individuals who are not employed. So this is a double blow for them.”
Major infrastructural damage
Chunks of the main highway from Vieux Fort to the capital of Castries were ripped off, leaving holes as deep as 80 feet. This destruction has crippled movement to different parts of the country. St Lucia, Anthony added, also lost seven significant bridges, three of which connected the main highways.
“So we have a huge problem on our hands. Most of these bridges span arterial roads. The first order of business for us is to try to reopen our major link roads to get movement between the capital and the South, especially to this airport,” Anthony added. St Lucia, being a tourist destination, is also bracing itself to face some losses from this industry. Crews working round the clock, however, have been able to facilitate travel by constructing alternative routes.
“As you know, we thrive on tourism,” Anthony explained, “so we need to be able to allow our planes to land but at the same time allow visitors to travel freely, either going out or coming in. “So we have had to resolve that situation by building several bypass roads away from the structural damage. We have successfully done so, and we were able to do so within a matter of 36 hours. Within a very short space of time it is possible to travel from one end of the island to the other.”
Explaining that the airport was a former military base Anthony said, “The Americans laid down infrastructure in and around this airport and that stood the test of time. But for the first time, an area that there was a large concrete road that was obviously used for aircraft...the sea took part of it, and this is the first time that has happened since 1945. “And that gives to some idea of the power and the sheer volume of the water that travelled over this area,” Anthony added.
Large bailey bridges were also torn from their hinges and transformed into twisted metal, he said.
A major setback
While Anthony expressed his gratitude to T&T for its generous donations, he said now more than ever his country needed financial aid, though he could not yet put a monetary value to the latest losses. “For us this is a major economic setback. St Lucia has an exceedingly and difficult fiscal situation. It is something we inherited when we won the general election in 2011, and it is something we have been battling for quite a while.” Accessing funds for recovery and rehabilitation, he added, would be a “mountain.”
“In any event, historically our principal ‘external friends’ do not really offer much assistance in these matters. “They allow you to face international banks, the Caribbean Development Bank among others, and so it is going to be a challenge to deal with the issues that we have here in St Lucia.” Anthony said St Lucia’s huge fiscal deficit also was reflective of a larger Caribbean problem. “Institutions like banks are not lending these governments, because they have become very frightened of the environment.
“Let’s not forget that Antigua has just emerged out of the IMF (International Monetary Fund), St Kitts is still in the embrace of the IMF and then Grenada is about to sign an agreement with the IMF. “Really to respond to the difficulties that I have...to rebuild, I will need money. That’s the bottom line,” Anthony said.
Saying some help was forthcoming, he added that St Lucia would be receiving about $7.2 million from the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America (Alba). But that money was already earmarked to repair bridges destroyed by Hurricane Tomas. “Tomas occurred three years ago and we are still grappling with rehabilitation, trying to rebuild our infrastructure—and then this comes along, adding to the problems,” Anthony said. He maintained the problem was not about technical expertise but finance.
Water supply polluted
St Lucia depends on its forest for most of its water supply, but this has been polluted to some extent owing to heavy and persistent landslides. “We now have the task of slowly getting access to these water intakes,” Anthony said. Forty per cent of the island has already had its water supply restored, and it is expected that by today most communities will have water. The problem, he added, would be turbidity.
“As the water is going to be brown, and perhaps the smell and look—most households are not going to want to use that water for drinking purposes even if it is boiled. “So it is vital we provide them with water, and that is why the water supply from T&T has been exceedingly helpful, because we have been able to provide water to these distressed communities throughout the length and breadth of the island,” Anthony said.
He was still concerned, however, saying if people did not have access to clean water that could lead to anxiety and “all kinds of issues.”
In the face of crisis, the people of St Lucia united to piece together their country. They came out to clean roads, repair infrastructure and distribute clothing to the needy, earning them praise from their prime minister. “There have been some really remarkable stories of persons who have forgotten everything else to come and render assistance,” Anthony said. Psychologically, however, St Lucians are still affected.
Because the devastation came relatively soon after the destruction caused by Tomas, Anthony said: “Psychologically I suspect our citizens would be saying. ‘When would all this be over?’ and one has to bear in mind we have had other minor floods even before this. “It was a relatively peaceful hurricane season. It ended on November 30 but no one expected this and perhaps there is a lesson in this too, that when meteorologists talk about a trough, perhaps they need to explain this a bit more.”
A stone’s throw away from the airport, in a technical vocational school transformed into a shelter, distraught families anxiously greeted T&T’s media, telling their tales of woe. “In five minutes all my home flooded. All I could do is just grab my son and walk through the water down the road, just watching everything. The water reach up to my stomach,” said Bruceville resident Edmund Hunt, who towers over six feet.
Describing the disaster as worse than the one left behind by Tomas he added: “In all my life I never saw this. Nobody never talk about this weather. The news never gave any information about this bad weather.” On small wooden benches, mothers comforted children, most not knowing when they would return to school. “I have all my seven kids and ten grand (children) with me in the shelter. I lost everything. “You think about clothes. All we have is the clothes on our back,” said Eve Joseph-Vantes.
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