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Saturday, June 24, 2017

As Tropical Storm Bret loomed, Trinis scrambled to ready their households for this menacing weather system. Groceries and neighbourhood shops did a roaring trade of bottled water, canned goods, batteries and dusty torches that weren’t really moving otherwise.

As night fell and winds laden with sideways rain howled fiercely, Trinis battened down the hatches hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. The following morning there seemed to be a collective sigh of relief that the country was spared the worst of it. Well, that’s all relative. For many citizens who agonised as flood waters rushed through their streets and eventually into their homes, this storm did everything but spare them.

Frequent video updates on social media showed the extent of the devastation which was most prevalent in Central and South Trinidad. An unhappy confluence of excessive rainfall and high tide the following day meant swollen rivers hemmed in by the tide were just beginning to do their worst. Murky water invaded homes and stubbornly stayed, as there was no path to egress in already overflowing drainage. One video showed a night visitor to a central resident’s home, a confused-looking caiman pressed against a front door.

Flooding triggered by the passage of Bret, though, threw up something far meaner than a displaced caiman. Some comments on social media portrayed all those affected as irresponsible citizens who got their comeuppance because they chose to settle in flood-prone areas. Cavorting in wild assumptions, naked ignorance and toxic political bias, social media commentators broadly characterised residents of drowned communities as shifty characters draining the teat of the treasury by deliberately building their homes or planting their crops in harm’s way, then going cap-in-hand to the Government for a bailout. This sort of perverse commentary was ably abetted by well-known personalities who set aside their presumed intelligence to join the donkey-bray fray. In the wake of the storm, there was a deluge of mean-spiritedness and a lack of empathy.

One person made the sweeping accusation that farmers (read as all farmers) have become millionaires by claiming compensation for crops, which, in some instances, were never planted to begin with.

People were conflating illegal riverine pollution, squatting and settlements in flood-prone areas, fusing separate issues into an unholy confirmation bias best suiting their warped political narratives. So the flood victims got what was coming to them because they all dumped garbage into rivers, on the banks of which, they built their homes. This is the sort of oversimplification we do best, a wobbly argument that is also totally ignorant of historical context.

Towns and villages across this country are vestiges of colonialism; residential areas in Central and South Trinidad are no different. At the end of indentureship, many East Indians accepted land grants in lieu of return passage to India. These were often the poorest allotments, in many instances, labourers had to tame marshlands to eke out a living. Additionally, in these areas where agriculture was the first economy of Trinidad, settlements sprang up around sugar plantations. People had to live near to where they worked. Subsequent generations inherited these lands because, among a demographic with sparse finances, land was the only “wealth” they owned. So it’s a simpleton’s supposition that these citizens chose to live in flood prone areas.

Do people recklessly build homes on riverbanks? Yes, that is a nationwide practice. Do some farmers defraud the state by filing false claims for crop damage? Surely some do. But to tar everyone with the same brush is nonsense.

Many years ago, I investigated allegations of farmers taking advantage of state compensation and discovered that while some farmers filed outlandish claims for flood damage, many of them were paid sums as little as $400-$600 by the state; nothing to support the accusation that a large number of farmers were hitting the flood compensation lotto with every downpour.

Even as bloggers and Facebook posters amped up their politically poisoned rhetoric, on the east coast, something rare was happening. Mayaro MP Rushton Paray and Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat, victor and vanquished in the 2015 general elections, got together to gear up for Tropical Storm Bret. I understand the pair established a WhatsApp group with T&TEC workers, regional corporation crews, Ministry staff and others to provide quick relief and assistance to anyone affected by the inclement weather. This, in turn, inspired other Mayaro residents to get involved, preparing hot meals for Bret victims and the first responders.

There were also images of some big-hearted citizens hard at work, cooking large cauldrons of piping hot food to provide comforting meals to flood victims at their wits end. Unlike others, they dedicated their time and resources to helping people in distress, rather than actively compounding it.

The quality of a people is often laid bare in times of disaster. We can only hope the actions of helping hands on the ground in Mayaro and elsewhere to offer relief and comfort to poor souls in need outweighed the harsh words of vipers who could only lift a finger to type out their contempt for the suffering.


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