Friday, October 26, 2012

Two Weeks in Jamaica 2008 - Reflections on Hurricanes

Man running from storm surge (Front of Gleaner 25/10/12)

In this season of hurricanes, when Montego Bay has once again been spared the worst, so nothing of note to recount, I am instead posting a piece I wrote in 2008, called Two Weeks in Jamaica. We have relived these two weeks this year, (not consecutively). I cannot say how much the lessons learned from the two weeks in 2008 resulted in nation building, but what has been shown strongly during the passage of Hurricane Sandy is the care people have shown to their neighbours, especially by young people towards the elderly. I salute them and hope their kind acts are recognized. Isn’t this the Jamaica we want?


Usain Bolt
     In the third week of August, Jamaica stunned the world by winning 11 medals, 6 of them gold, in track events in the Beijing Olympic Games. Jamaicans worldwide, glued to their TV sets, watched as our athletes won heat after heat. On days of finals, tension stretched to breaking point. All of us in Jamaica held our breath until the winning moment when we burst into a frenzy of celebration. In Kingston, the capital, at a busy intersection where a large TV screen was mounted, a huge crowd stopped traffic, as people waved flags, banged pot covers, laughed and cheered.
     The first of these celebrations took place when Usain Bolt won the men’s 100m in record time. He also won the hearts of spectators as he celebrated in his own way, with his trademark salute, and performed his favourite dancehall moves—“gully creeper” and “nuh linger”.
     Then Shelly-Ann Fraser, Kerron Stewart and Sherone Simpson won gold and two silver in the women’s 100m. People in the poor inner-city district, where Shelly-Ann comes from, were over the moon. The stigma—nothing good comes out of the ghetto—was blown away in 10.78 seconds.
     When Usain Bolt won the men’s 200m in record time, followed by Melaine Walker’s gold in the women’s 400m hurdles and Veronica Campbell Brown’s gold in the women’s 200m, we were ecstatic. The gloom that descended when the women failed to medal in the 100m relay, soon evaporated when the men’s 100m relay team won gold.

To share the euphoria, the optimism and the unifying force, as it swept through this island, was an incredible experience.
In Kingston after Hurricane Sandy (Collin Reid photo)

The following week, TV images brought us news we did not want to hear—Tropical Storm Gustav was heading towards Jamaica. I had lived here for twenty years before my first experience of a hurricane—Gilbert—in 1988. Jamaica had not been hit by a hurricane since 1951, and was not prepared. As a consequence, at our house, we were without piped water for 4 days, electricity for 3 weeks and telephone for 7 weeks. Others fared far worse.
     By the time Hurricane Ivan hit in 2004, the utility companies had learnt their lesson—telephone service did not fail; and water and electricity were restored within a week. We had learnt the wisdom of putting up hurricane shutters at the windows to prevent rain blowing in, between the glass louvre blades, but the downside was an incessant clanging and rattling which, together with a howling wind, went on all night.
     In 2007, we prepared for Hurricane Dean, but Montego Bay was spared the worst. Come 2008, here we were again, making preparations for Gustav, forecast to pass between Jamaica and Cuba. Instead, it made an unexpected turn to the south and slammed straight into the east coast of Jamaica. Floods washed away houses and bridges; landslides blocked roads and great chunks of road slid down mountainsides. Banana fields, in their final recovery from Hurricane Dean, were once again flattened. We in the west give thanks that we were only inconvenienced. As for those who were battered by the storm, with characteristic Jamaican resilience, they pick up the pieces and move on.

In the months to come, as we recall, talk and joke about these two weeks, the sincere wish of most Jamaicans is that the positives which flowed from the achievements of our hard-working athletes, and the lessons learned from the storm, be converted into decisive steps of nation building.

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