Global Voices

In Trinidad & Tobago, It's No ‘Small Thing’ How People Rallied After Flooding

While most people had "no words" to describe the damage caused by days of flooding, the deputy head of the country's disaster agency called the situation "a small thing".

A screenshot of a drone video taken by TOPSHOT, showing the Mosquito Creek area of south Trinidad. This key access road was flooded due to persistent heavy rains which caused the Godineau River to break its banks, as well as high tides from the bordering Gulf of Paria.

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season has been one of the most active ever — and though Trinidad and Tobago is located outside of the hurricane belt, the twin islands have been experiencing heavy rainfall, which has led to widespread flooding.

On October 18, 2017, the Divali holiday, persistent rain prevented many Hindus from lighting their deyas (lamps) outdoors, but the flooding in many areas of the country was even more worrisome, as was the seeming inability of the relevant authorities to deal with the situation.

The rains continued for days. Central and south Trinidad were some of the hardest hit areas, with some locations reportedly being under five feet of water. There was also damage along the country's north coast, leaving people there marooned as well.

Social media users immediately began chronicling events, posting drone footage to YouTube and Facebook. Others, via several Facebook groups, shared photographs of the damage.

Several government ministers managed to get into their affected constituencies; Dr. Lovell Francis, the member of parliament for Moruga/Tableland, to the far south of the country, was one of the most visible on social media. Some roads in his constituency had collapsed; uploading photos from one area, he captioned his post, “No words.”

Councillor Candice Allain also put the power of social media to use by posting several Facebook Live videos updating people about road access and relief efforts to the north of the country, where there were quite a few landslides. The relevant regional corporations, all arms of local government, were pro-active in helping residents of flooded areas clean up, and the prime minister visited affected citizens.

In fact, most people rallied. However, Colonel (Retired) Dave Williams, the deputy head of the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) — the body responsible for coordinating all the necessary relief agencies — missed the mark and incensed citizens when he discounted the gravity of the situation. One journalist live tweeted Williams’ press conference:

There was an instant outcry on social media channels. In an attempt to defend the ODPM, Williams attributed the organisation's tardy response to poor communication among emergency agencies and ineffective use of available media channels:

Following the uproar, Williams resigned from his post. Or, as Wired868's witty satirist Mr. Live Wire put it, the flooding in central and south Trinidad was “catastrophic if you live there or have even the most basic level of human empathy. Or ‘small thing’ if you happened to be the deputy CEO of the Office of Disaster Preparedness Management and wanted to know what a boot in your posterior felt like.”

A screenshot of a YouTube drone video showing flooding in the in Penal/Debe area of central Trinidad.

This natural disaster had many takeaways, however, including discussion about contributing factors. The mayor of Chaguanas, one of the low-lying towns in central Trinidad, maintained that illegal structures built on the banks of major rivers were exacerbating to the problem. Residents of the area under his purview suffered great damage to their homes and places of business, and farmers lost crops.

Facebook user Rhoda Bharath added:

Apparently we have forgotten about the impact that the Pt Fortin Highway had on the Oropuche Lagoon and the wetlands in South.
Coupled with poor urban planning, clogged waterways from littering and incessant heavy rains. […]

She also posed questions about “all the commercial and industrial waste” that clogs certain rivers in central Trinidad.

Other netizens criticised the lack of assistance from the corporate sector.

The irony of the situation was not lost on those who remember the uncharitable online debate about sending relief to other regional territories after hurricanes Irma and Maria:

Originally published in Global Voices.

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