Silence of shock gives way to sounds of hammer

Published: 15 September 2004 0:00 CET

Solveig Olafsdottir, Grenada

Grenadians are a nation in shock. Only a week ago, their peaceful Caribbean island was a paradise on earth. Untouched by hurricanes for almost 50 years, people were by no means prepared for the frightful disaster that struck on 7 September.

Hurricane Ivan, dubbed Ivan the Terrible by people in the region, swept through the island with its gushing winds - nothing spared in its wake. Ninety per cent of buildings on the island have suffered structural damages, electricity has been completely cut off, and water supply was totally severed during the first days after the hurricane hit. Most communication systems are down, as landlines and most mobile phone centres were destroyed and no mass media - including radio, television and newspapers – has operated in the country since the disaster struck.

More than anything, though, this disaster has affected every single person on the island and left them paralyzed. All trees have been flattened by the powerful storm and stripped bare of their leaves. Houses have been smashed and lifted off their foundation, roofs have blown off, windows have been shattered.

For an outsider the extent of the destruction is devastating; for Grenadians it is simply demoralizing. It is hard to know where and how to begin the road to recovery when the whole island community has been equally affected.

Out of a population of some 95,000 people, it is estimated that 60,000 have been made homeless. Some have moved in with the fortunate few whose houses have remained somewhat unscathed. Others are able to stay at their homes, crammed into one or two rooms which are still intact -while most have had to seek shelter in abandoned buildings such as churches and schools. However, most of these shelters have also been damaged, there is no running water, and there is no electricity at night. This does not provide much comfort from the distressing scene outside.

Theophilus Francis and his family of five are staying in the small church of Seventh Adventists together with 40 other people. His house, like most in his neighbourhood of Morne Tout in the capital St. George, was totally destroyed.

“When the hurricane hit, we were staying with a neighbour, but the roof blew off his house so we had to come here,” he explains.

There are some 13 families crammed into the church hall. All windows are broken, so plywood has been used to cover the frames. There is no light inside, no working toilets, and definitely no privacy. Beds and mattresses are propped up against each other, and people have nothing to do.

“We have very little to eat, and drinking water is a problem,” Theophilus says. “It is hard to live in such crowded conditions, but the hardest thing is not to being able to work. For me this has finished my life. But we have to cope.”

Theophilus usually works as a security guard, but the compound of the company he worked for was smashed. This is true of most industries and companies on the island, so there is no work to be had. Everyone has to take care of their own, and find ways just to survive until basic services have been restored. Food is hard to come by as stores are still closed, and little has been preserved as there is no electricity.
“We are not even able to find coconuts and bananas from the trees, because the hurricane cleaned everything off,” he says.

“Cleanliness is next to godliness” reads a sign at Grandanse Private Academy, a small private school in St.George with only one big room that is now home to eight families. This is somewhat ironic, as there are only two toilets for the 45 people living there, and no bathrooms – they have to go to the sea to wash. Frustration is also bottling up at the South Plaza shelter, as people are getting more depressed about their situation. The 200 people who have taken refuge there are the first residents of the newly built compound, which is far from being an ideal living space. Not yet completed, concrete dust and loose wires make it a harsh environment for everyone, but especially the children.

People are also reluctant to be registered as living in the shelter, preferring to be able to come and go as they wish without having to contribute to the common chores. But neither will they be eligible for any assistance if they do not sign up, as Hubert Pierre, the Disaster Management Officer of the St. Lucia Red Cross who has come to assist the Grenada Red Cross in need, points out.

Despite personal losses, the staff of the Grenada Red Cross has been operating day and night since the disaster struck. Its offices were completely destroyed, and it has been difficult to reach out to the volunteers as all telecommunications are more or less down.

Terry Charles, the Director General, together with his four other officers has been working around the clock assessing the situation and organizing distributions of relief items sent by sister Red Cross societies in the region, which have shown an incredible solidarity at this time of need. Donations from St. Lucia, Dominica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Antigua have already been sent to Grenada, and consignments from Barbados and St. Kitts are underway.

The International Federation also responded immediately by deploying a disaster coordinator from the Pan-American Disaster Response Unit (PADRU) and disaster preparedness officer from the sub-regional delegation in Trinidad to support the Grenada Red Cross. A FACT team arrived in Grenada on Sunday morning, accompanied by British Red Cross logistics ERU. The consolidated Red Cross team is currently distributing much needed relief items sent from PADRU’s emergency stock – mostly hygiene parcels and tarpaulin.

Relief efforts have proven to be difficult as roads have been blocked by electrical wires as well as uprooted trees and debris from shattered houses. Fuel is hard to come by, as petrol stations have difficulties accessing their stocks and operating pumps due to lack of electricity.

Priority has been given to providing fuel for governmental activities and aid agencies but is far from being sufficient. Both public and commercial warehouses have been destroyed around the airport and the main port, so agencies are facing a major challenge on how to storage relief supplies. The main airport is now operational for both commercial and cargo flights, but only during daytime as the lighting has suffered some damage.

Despite the despair in the wake of this terrible disaster, people are waking up to face the challenge which lies ahead. After days of being unable to fathom the magnitude of the destruction, the nation is starting to take things into their own hands.

Teams have been deployed to clean up the debris, and the silence of shock is giving way to sounds of hammer as people have started to repair their homes. But as most people’s lives and livelihood have been shattered, there is need for an urgent international response to assist Grenadians to build a new future.