home Commentary, Current Affairs, North America After the hurricane, survivors rally to help neighbours in the Caribbean

After the hurricane, survivors rally to help neighbours in the Caribbean

For the first time in over a fortnight, it was possible to cool off in the sea yesterday. The storm surges from Irma and Maria have finally passed, and there are a few corners of the island where seaweed and detritus coughed up by the ocean aren’t piled high under the palm trees. The sea temperature is noticeably lower than it was, a huge relief for anyone monitoring the possibility of yet more hurricanes tearing through the vulnerable Leeward Islands.

Looking online, I see that the Sahara dust is returning too. The absence of this thick red dust that irritates with its presence – every morning, everything has another fine coating – was partially responsible for the creation of two of the most destructive hurricanes the Caribbean has ever witnessed.

I live on Nevis. From where I write, I can look up and see St Maarten and St Barthes on a clear day although their near neighbour Anguilla is too low-lying to be visible; driving round to the fairytale-named Gingerland on the eastern side of the island, I can look across to Antigua and can sometimes make out Barbuda hunkered low on the horizon. These are the islands that were the first to witness Irma’s destructive powers. A half hour dash in a prop plane and I could make it down to Dominica, ‘the Nature Island’ that has been levelled by Maria.

The fact that it is possible to look out across Nevis rooftops – painted cheerful blues and yellows and greens in the bright colours the Caribbean is known for – is nothing short of a miracle. Half a degree difference in either of those storms and we would have been making the headlines; just twenty miles closer to the eyes and I wouldn’t be sitting at home with the cooling breeze of a ceiling fan, drinking chilled water from the fridge.

Here, we just had ‘inconveniences’. A few trees were felled, rivers came from nowhere and disappeared just as fast when the rain finally stopped, power cuts lasted for seemingly interminable days and one of the two internet and cell phone providers stopped functioning for the best part of a week. Last night I fell asleep listening to the hammering of three men on the roof of the house in front of mine, shingles being urgently replaced before a downpour arrived in the early hours of this morning.

A group of men wearing Domlec shirts
Domlec staffers left Dominica to assist Anguilla with reconnecting the electricity supply after Irma decimated the island. Of course, then Maria struck – and the experts from Domlec were stranded on Anguilla when they just desperately wanted to be back home.

Nobody knows how to react. Where I am on the northern side of the island, Irma was the most terrifying of the storms: she arrived at night, shaking the doors and threatening to claw them open. The roof creaked ominously. Shadowy palms bent in half before us, and all we could do was sit and wait for her to pass. Power is turned off before the storms arrive so everyone sits in darkness in sealed units, the heat becoming increasingly oppressive and the tension unbearable as the winds whip themselves into a frenzy for hour after hour after hour.

Hurricanes don’t dash through, they aren’t an angry child throwing a quick tantrum that ends as suddenly as it starts: Irma moved at around 9mph, a storm so huge we were trapped inside for over 24 hours. There are attempts at nonchalance, but everyone is secretly checking the hurricane tracking websites with only one thing on their mind: will she shift from her path? At the eleventh hour – and never has that expression been more apt, because it was at 11pm in a final update on the national hurricane centre’s website – Irma shifted two degrees, and in doing so spared Nevis but destroyed Anguilla.

Survivor’s Guilt is a subsection, as it were, of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is a religious island so there are plenty of people who believe God spared them, but even with that peg to hang feelings on there is a pervading sense of, ‘why us?’ In a bid to assuage these feelings, the aid effort has become nothing short of extraordinary. I’ve seen it expressed by people on Anguilla that they hope when the history books are written that it is remembered how St Kitts and Nevis came to their assistance after Irma. Boats laden with water and food and baby supplies set out across still-stormy waters and arrived there before even the Royal Navy.

Friends and family sent endless messages asking if I was alright and did I need anything. Apart from a darn good wash – and I found that in a friend’s swimming pool – I was fine. But, I told them, other islands were desperate. If they wanted, I could buy goods on their behalf and put them into the boats heading over.

Boats laden with relief supplies leaving Nevis for Anguilla
Photo credit: Everton Powell

I did not expect the response I received. I don’t want to reveal specific sums here, suffice to say I spent a few days in awe of my friends, and overwhelmed by their generosity. Some shared my Facebook message on their own pages so friends of friends were sending me money. I would head down to the Cash and Carry armed with a credit card (actually three credit cards, incase one was blocked for whatever reason; living in a tax haven, it tends to happen more often than anyone appreciates) and buy mountains of urgently-needed goods to send across. They were piled into trucks and taken off to the dock, human chains forming to pass boxes along and pack them in. I could send photos back to the donors who then immediately saw the impact of their money and know that, mere hours after sending cash, life-saving products were in the hands of those who had nothing because of their donation.

We live in a world where everything is so very immediate. Patience is a virtue long gone. People flick through images on Tinder, finding ‘true love’ in moments; we sign up for exercise classes that promise we can lose the weight in just five minutes a day; everything now comes in ‘bite size chunks’, entire seasons are released together on the likes of Netflix, instant meals and takeaways keep us fuelled, and everywhere people are rushing, rushing, to get to the Next Big Thing. Ordinarily I rail against all of this but being able to harness the power of the Immediate Gratification Generation arguably saved lives on Anguilla.

There are endless stories of people sending inappropriate aid. There’s an earthquake in the tropics? Let’s clear out the wardrobe and send all the winter items we no longer need. Thousands upon thousands of teddy bears were kindly but unnecessarily sent after Sandy Hook. And there are worse abuses: I lived in southern Africa and saw how charities choose to spend some of their funds. The arrogance of the western-run charity is astounding, and more than a little ironic since they patronise the very people they claim shouldn’t be patronised.

A smiling woman holding up clothing donations.
Peachicks of Nevis donated new children’s clothing.

I remember a hospital in Zambia being offered a donation and asked what they needed the money for: ‘We need a fridge!’ they begged, a fridge that would keep medicines at the right temperature. Apparently, a fridge wasn’t glamorous enough so instead they received two state-of-the-art hospital beds. It doesn’t matter that the hospital doesn’t have the sheets to cover them or the staff to support more patients. The arrogance of those organisers is breathtaking.

The school I worked at in Swaziland was offered a large chunk of money by the American Embassy to be allocated to security. Excellent, we all thought, since the fence surrounding the school was in such poor condition intruders could walk in without even needing to take their own wire-cutters. Again, a new fence wasn’t deemed interesting enough and so they insisted the money be spent on fancy video-entry systems – something we didn’t need or want and was of no merit to the school. I remember the discussions in the staff room, the uncomfortable conclusion being that we should take the offer anyway because maybe in the future they would offer more money with which to buy the fence. ‘Just take it anyway.’ It didn’t feel right.

On Nevis, though, it was different. The islanders knew what others would need, those running the boats knew what had already been taken and checked when they arrived what supplies were still required, and in the Cash and Carry the staff poked into the darkest corners trying to find products that could most easily be split for individual distribution. ‘Every penny sent is a penny spent’, I declared to my friends, and the money poured in. There was no glory-seeking: on the whole, I was sent private messages by people who didn’t wish to have their name mentioned, and invariably when I sent them a photo of the most recent pile of purchases I would receive a ‘thumbs up’ in response followed by, ‘Well done, you. Can I send more?’

The only sense I can make of the ‘well done’ comments is that I enabled people to feel valid and useful and genuine for a few moments. So often we see stories in the news and feel completely impotent, unable to help directly and unwilling to just dispatch money to the ‘big business’ charities.

There will always be people who grumble. There are some on Nevis who are still mired in their own wells of self-pity, unable to have hot showers because a solar panel was blown away or complaining because they need to buy a new router as the endless power cuts and surges fried the one they had; I know of one person who has a huge stash of bottled water ‘just incase’ and refuses to part with it, not realising this is the ‘just incase’ moment. In the background there are of course people rubbing their hands with glee at the increased bookings Nevis will undoubtedly receive for the upcoming season.

These individuals are far outweighed, though, by the generosity of those who live in the wooden shacks perched precariously atop cinder blocks, who have reached into the backs of their cupboards and sent the little they have to people they will never meet with no expectation of a ‘thank you’ in return.

Photo credit: Irma Relief from Nevis, Everton Powell

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Elizabeth Jane Thomas

Jane Thomas is something of a world wanderer having lived and worked on all continents – except the chilly duo topping and tailing our planet. She’s currently living on the isolated outcrop of Nevis in the Caribbean, an island that is hard to get to and – judging by her ever-changing departure date – even harder to leave. Areas of interest include, but are very much not limited to: eighteenth century women poets, education, cycle touring, and photography. She is always in pursuit of the next Good Book and can be found at Books & Bicycles