These days my idea of finding solace and inspiration by “connecting with nature” seems like a bad joke. Most people are anxious for strongly-built walls and roofs to keep out the wind and rain, and sun, and mosquitoes, and other unwelcome manifestations of nature. But so many homes, hopes and livelihoods have been blown away.
At the beginning of the summer, I wondered if it was okay for me to focus on trees and birds during what seemed like dark political times. I was looking for peace in the woods, frustrated, after years of advocacy on environmental protection policies, by U.S. government inaction on climate change. Actually, policies being reversed that were intended to prevent increased risks of natural disasters – including stronger storms fed by warming ocean water.
Now many of the trees I documented on St. John over the past few years are broken or uprooted, and there is little food available for any birds that survived the storms. An even darker time has arrived.
Of course, the most important priority is to ensure that all the people on the islands are safe and settled in secure places and provided with necessary assistance to leave or stay. Virgin Islanders are remarkably self-sufficient and resilient but nevertheless will need lots of assistance in this devastating situation.
Then the infrastructure must be rebuilt and buildings replaced.
When so much is broken, and funding potentially available from various sources for rebuilding, it is time to think about possible improvements for greater strength and protection.
Stronger building codes?
The fate of particular buildings was affected by a combination of factors, including elevation, exposure, the direction of the wind, materials (wood or reinforced concrete), stability of the foundation, attachment of the roof, and strength of the doors and windows. Probably few structures can withstand a direct hit by a tornado within the eyewall of a hurricane. But it is worth trying to understand more about what can increase that possibility, or reduce a building’s exposure. Surely there will be more storms hitting the Virgin Islands, maybe even worse ones.
Better communications technology?
Given the current capacity for global connectedness, it has been frustrating to lose contact so thoroughly and for so long. It seems that there should be some way to acquire and secure emergency equipment that could be brought out quickly and activated to provide cell phone hot spots in different island neighborhoods. Meanwhile, maybe more individuals and community institutions need to invest in satellite phones or other communications equipment as part of their hurricane preparedness preparation.
Rethinking power generation and transmission?
WAPA is diligently working to replace the broken poles and power lines, helped by outside utility repair teams. In the short term, it is the most reasonable response. The Governor has asked for long-term funding to bury the power lines – which would be helpful. But maybe there are better approaches. Decentralized mini-grids could be considered for different neighborhoods and renewable energy systems that could also run off-grid as back-up for rebuilt homes, schools, hospitals, community institutions and government buildings.
Disaster preparedness procedures and drills?
People on St. John have done a remarkable job of taking charge and taking care of each other. Building on this experience, it might make sense to have an even more organized approach. Like setting up neighborhood teams for thinking about emergency preparations and responses, designating contact people and places, and acquiring basic types of equipment and provisions that could be stored within walking distance of homes within that neighborhood.
The process of neighbors thinking and talking about how to deal with storms and disaster could even lead to a deeper level of community cooperation in rebuilding for St. John’s future.
Meanwhile, many of the trees will come back. Like us, the older ones have been through hurricanes before.