By Rev. Dr. William Watty
Even by the unpredictable standards of Tropical Storms, "Erica" was different. She visited us with style and gait all her own. Whereas "David", in 1978, administered a straight body-blow that knocked us down, "Erica" tricked us into believing that her rendez-vous was not with us but with Antigua; and just as she seemed to be passing us by, she administered a swift and savage backward kick that sent us reeling. Just at the point when we breathed a sigh of relief that a wind-storm we feared was going away, "Erica" inundated us with ten inches of rainfall in four hours – probably a record. One of our villages, Petite Savanne, has been practically erased from the map; another, Coulibistrie, was left covered thick with silt. Lives have been lost, some who cannot be accounted for have also been feared lost. Many casualty-victims are in our Hospital wards nursing grievous wounds and broken or fractured limbs. The operation of our major airport has been wrecked. Most of the roadways linking our communities have been littered with landslides and fallen boulders. Whole bridges have been ripped out and carried downward by the flood and, even as I write, lingering showers continue intermittently.
In the light of that awesome tally, the mantra that is being repeated, over and over, "we are a resilient people and Dominica will bounce back" must sound a little trite. I prefer to hope that, with the awakening of "Erica", we shall not only recover resilience, but discover the wisdom that shall not bounce us back to August 26, but catapult us forward to better preparedness. For, harsh as the experience has been, "Erica" was also a wake-up call to rouse us out of our complacency and force us to abandon the tendency to return to "business as usual" after the debris has been cleared and the roadways restored to regular use. The harsh reality is that we cannot bounce back for, whether we like it or not, we have now been roughly shoved into a new era of the "Ericas", which our reconstruction plans must take seriously into account if our hopes for a brighter, better and safer future are to be realized.
If "Erica" has taught us nothing else, it should have convinced us, by now, that Dominica is not like anywhere else; and therefore we cannot plan a viable future by simply copying what has worked elsewhere. Our mountains are so lofty, our hillsides so steep our rivers so many that the 294 square miles we must make our home, and on which our future depends, forbids short-term, haphazard, vi-ki-vi decisions that are focused more on the next General Election than on a viable future. That is why the Prime Minister's bold initiative in inviting the Parliamentary Opposition to join in the task of planning a reconstruction deserves a loud round of applause. Preparation for the future "Ericas" will involve unpopular decisions that cannot succeed without popular education and the mobilization of widespread confidence and support. In all of this the call for a bi-partisan approach is not merely a gracious gesture. It is of the essence.
"Erica" has taught us to respect our natural environment. Nature insulted has its own way of fighting back. In retrospect, building an airport by usurping the natural course of a river was plain madness. Whatever may have been the arguments for it, it was merely a disaster pending. It was only a matter of time that Pagua River would say, "You are squatting on my property. I want it back." The same applies to Check Hall, Bath Estate and Elmshall. Dominica's waterways are nothing to play with. In full spate they will overflow their widest banks. They will reclaim their natural courses. They will sweep away, sweep through and sweep down whatever obstructs their angry paths. When aroused, they have a life and a mind and a power of their own. If "David" said to us "Respect the force and direction of the wind as you erect your buildings". "Erica" has now added "Respect your water-tables, your water-courses, your waterfalls, your water works and your standpipes. Respect your water."
Building roadways in Dominica as they were built in Antigua or St. Kitts or Barbados is a waste of time and money. Drainage to carry the water away easily and freely into the sea is not an option that can be casually ignored and deleted from the estimates. It is an essential part of the project without which it is labour lost and good money wasted because of ignorance or stupidity. Without proper drainage Dominica's rainfall will return your smoothest nylon highway to macadam before the decade has run its course. Clearing the adjacent hillsides of overhanging boulders and of the possibility of land slippage, also, should be legalized for the protection of commuting citizens. Connecting bridges across rivers should either be raised high enough above the swelling flood, or built solid enough to withstand the raging torrent.
And will someone please tell me what is the use of our fair weather utilities, for which we must pay through our noses, month after fleecing month, but which, just when they are most needed, are the first to collapse and go out of service? Relatives abroad go berserk with panic on hearing the news and seeing the frightening pictures that reach them by the Social Media. They fear that the worst may have befallen their kindred and friends. All they want is the reassurance of a familiar voice but, try as they might, they cannot have it. Am I to understand that this is a condition in which we must remain trapped because the outlay was too much for the shareholders or the added convenience too good for the natives? Yes, DOMLEC and LIME and DIGICEL and DOWASCO are to be highly commended for so swiftly restoring the services after the peril was over. But that is not the point. My question has to do with the installation. Was there no way at all, given the technology of the 20th century, to safeguard the systems against the threat of disruption that such disasters have so obviously and repeatedly posed?
But "Erica" has also reminded us that living in Dominica is not, by a long way, disadvantageous. No matter where we are or how adverse the circumstances, complaints about the shortage of potable water should never again be heard in our land. In planning our dwellings, not only location and access should be given consideration, but also provision for water storage, so that we do not wholly depend on DOWASCO. A cistern or tank is not luxury. It is commonsense. This is Dominica, for heaven's sake. With careful fore-planning, one should be able to survive the breakdown of DOWASCO for, from any rainy season, enough surplus water can be accumulated which, safely stored and carefully managed, can see us through the longest Carême.
Last, but not least "Erica" has taught us that responsible Government must show concern about the location in which its citizens dwell. I sometimes wonder, travelling along the E.O. LeBlanc Highway, at the ornate houses I see clinging precariously to the perpendicular hillsides below the level of the road. Pardon my abysmal ignorance in these matters, but they, too, look like disasters begging to happen. Am I to understand that there was nowhere better in Dominica where these splendid mansions could have been built? In any case, the Government should have not only the prerogative to forbid construction in unsafe locations, but also the social responsibility to encourage residence in safer areas by providing the basic utilities. Nor is this a favour gratuitously bestowed, or maliciously withheld according to political allegiance or political whim. It is enlightened policy deriving from the lessons learned from the hazards to which we have already been, and will remain, exposed, as well as the new hazards that now beckon. "Erica" has been a warning to those who still feel drawn, as by magnet, to low-lying areas and urban centres – an overhang of the colonial era, with perils not only of rivers overflowing their banks, laden with silt, but also the likelihood of an approaching Tsunami, which only the starry-eyed optimists can now blithely dismiss.
So this is the bright side of "Erica". She was a wake-up call we should have heeded long ago. Planning environmentally is in the long view sound economics, and sound economic planning will, in the long run, prove to be environmentally friendly.