A Caribbean perspective

As a region, the Caribbean is no stranger to hurricanes. The National Hurricane Center stated that the Atlantic hurricane season has “averaged 14 named storms, 7 hurricanes and 3 major hurricanes” a year from 1991-2020. The commonality of experiencing these storms is a Caribbean rite of passage, and from a young age, islanders often relive their parents’ and grandparents’ horror through their stories of hurricanes that swept through their native islands over the years.

Growing up in the twin island Federation of St. Kitts & Nevis, Hurricanes Hugo (1989), Georges, (1998), and Lenny (1999) were the storms my parents used to ingrain the dangers of hurricanes upon me. Unbeknownst to my parents, their tales only helped to fuel my fascination with experiencing this natural phenomenon. That is, until 2017, when I experienced my first major hurricane, Hurricane Irma, while residing in the U.S. Virgin Islands and pursuing my undergraduate degree. It’s safe to say this storm shattered my misplaced intrigue about the effects of major hurricanes, and in retrospect, was the starting point of my reevaluation of how I value my surroundings as an islander.

A damaged and de-nuded tree in the playground at Frenchtown, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Photo by Dijani Laplace.

From a distance, it may be unfathomable to comprehend how a young Caribbean student with firsthand experience of numerous tropical storms and a firm interest rooted in Geography and the Natural Sciences could ever be enthusiastic about experiencing a major hurricane. Through high school, I routinely viewed tropical storms as a day off from school and welcomed cooler weather that would have no lasting impacts. This was further amplified by the fact that my peers and I were born during a period where St. Kitts and Nevis were – for the most part – entirely spared from hurricanes. This is why my experience with Hurricane Irma was so profound, and completely changed my perspective. Irma altered so many common features on my everyday experience: forested hills were completely de-leaved for over a month, fruit trees were barren, beaches were eroded and some were permanently altered, and nearshore, clear waters were colored brown due to sediment runoff.

Runoff in the waters near Magens Bay, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, after the passage of Hurricane Irma. Photo by Greg Guannel.

In retrospect, it really reinforced how often I may take the natural environment and its contribution to the greater Caribbean experience for granted, as well as how important these elements are for my everyday comfort and well-being. It was even more disheartening to learn that many islanders often never come to this realization, and this became more apparent as I engrossed myself in my work.

Following the hurricanes, I spent time working in the areas of hazard mitigation and resilience. This work included conducting literature reviews about the USVI territory’s natural resources to assess their condition and extent, and communicating with local experts and small focus groups of community members to obtain their perspectives of the importance of these resources. These experiences unearthed my perception that some people are either unaware of the relationship between ecosystem health – that is, the system of interactions between organisms and their habitats- and general human well-being; or, they understand the basics of this relationship but constraints of their daily routine don’t allow them to advocate for measures to maintain or improve it.  

A ghut, or freshwater stream, runs down the hillside and into Fish Bay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. Photos from Just Beaching blog.

For example, many Virgin Islanders view environmental restoration actions that emphasize improving human health as priorities. But in my experience, many often struggle to identify the causes of the more layered human health issues and hazards that they face.  Common issues that plagued many households after the storms and the month of pouring rain that followed, were flood related, whether at an individual level (flooded homes, yards, and driveways) or more generally for public infrastructure, where potholes and roadways inundated for days at a time created hazardous driving conditions. Many islanders attributed these issues to poorly maintained and rather overwhelmed public drainage infrastructure. While that was true, little consideration was given to the anthropogenic deterioration of natural, riverine formations known as ghuts. In addition to being a critical natural habitat, ghuts are natural pathways in which excess stormwater moves safely from upland towards the coast. Despite their importance, ghuts in the territory are often locations for improper waste disposal (particularly more remote ghuts), impeded by sedimentation or infringed upon by nearby development. Impeding ghuts increases surface and hillside runoff, which on hillside roads can cause hazardous driving conditions, and overwhelm manmade drainage infrastructure meant to accentuate these ghuts downstream.

Moreover, the issue of direct impairment of ghuts is often further exacerbated by the placement of local waste management authority’s bin sites, which are large dumpsters that the majority of the public use for household waste disposal. These bin sites have commonly been  placed near ghuts up on hillsides, or near manmade drainage infrastructure downstream.   The location of these bin sites often creates indirect issues with pollution downstream from surface runoff, often depositing land-based trash and other pollutants between the prop roots of mangroves, the sediment in which they persist, and in coastal areas. This practice can negatively affect mangrove health and the adjacent water quality, which in rare instances can make beaches unsafe for recreational use. Repetition of practices such as this illustrates my perception that the general public lacks understanding about how ecosystem health affects their own well- being.

With climate change and the challenges it presents, ensuring that the general Caribbean populace (and especially its youth) is cognizant of their environment and its influence on their way of life is critical. Experiencing a natural disaster shouldn’t have been the trigger for me rethinking my relationship with the environment, despite how effective it was. It is my hope that my experiences help others reevaluate the importance of nature in their daily lives, and that my hurricane horror stories that changed my own perspectives are the exception, and not the template.

Author: Dijani Laplace

Dijani is a Graduate Research Assistant working with Harte Research Institute’s Community Resilience group. His research interests are in ecosystem science and the environmental applications of GIS. In his down time, He enjoys playing basketball, watching TV and movies, and hanging with his friends.

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