12 September 2004

Under the Gun

Common Sense
John Maxwell

For me, nothing better epitomises the inter-connectedness of everything than a hurricane. A small weather system which began life as a localised area of low pressure somewhere in West Africa ends up devastating Florida and flooding subways in New York. Most of our hurricanes start as low pressure areas somewhere in the Sahara or the Sahel; cooler air rushes in to fill the low pressure zone and those winds will be deflected to the right (in the northern hemisphere by forces driven by the rotation of the earth. The spin imparted to the drifting column of air and water vapour helps it move over the sea As it drifts out into the Bight of Benin it gathers heat and more water vapour from the ocean and begins a leisurely drift across the Atlantic.

Soon, the rotating column of hot air picks up more heat and water vapour from the sea, becoming a towering column – a whirligig or gig as we as schoolboys called spinning tops – thousands of metres high. Nourished by the warm currents of the Atlantic drift it soon becomes much bigger and more energetic, wheeling thousands of tons of water vapour round its developing centre. It releases the heat picked up from the ocean as the water vapour condenses into rain and it vents its now cold exhaust into the troposphere – 12 km (8 miles) above the surface of the ocean. You could think of a hurricane as a sort of air conditioner for the Atlantic, cooling the water, extracting heat as it passes and transferring the heat energy to the winds which begin to accelerate as more heat (fuel) is ingested.

As the Earth moves beneath this giant heat engine and the ocean's currents steer it like Columbus' doom-burdened caravels, the rotating storm makes its way across the Atlantic, becoming bigger and more destructive by the hour. By the time it becomes worthy to be called a tropical depression it disposes of more power than small nuclear bombs, albeit not as concentrated. But it does become more concentrated as it picks up more heat and mass from the water below and it moves, an enormous, blind and voracious monster, searching for its food – the warmer waters trapped in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. The monster's first hurdle is usually the Windward Islands, so called for the very reason that they are the cyclones main gateway into the hurricane feeding grounds of the Caribbean.

Steered by currents of water below and currents of air above – jet streams and high pressure zones, the little breath of hot air from the Sahara has becomes a ravening omnivore, unstoppable by any human force, tossing enormous passenger liners and cargo carriers about like toys, throwing rocks the size of houses out of the sea, swamping boats and low-lying coasts and their puny man-made constructions, moving whole beaches from one place to another, altering the geography of the sea bottom as well as the land.

And as it chews its way through the Antilles it kills and lays waste, drowning some in floods and in the swelling of the sea – the storm surge created by its lower atmospheric pressure. It strips hillsides of soil, vegetation and human habitation indiscriminately, sweeping away, crushing and maiming with landslides and roads scoured and destroyed by wind and water which carve and cut more greedily than any pride of bulldozers and draglines,

Hurricane Frances, which threatened us two weeks ago is, as I write, making life miserable for subway travellers in New York. Sometimes hurricanes re-cross the Atlantic; hitching a ride on the warm Gulf Stream: it was probably an errant Caribbean hurricane that altered history by scattering the Spanish Armada five centuries ago, shipwrecking Spaniards and black sailors and soldiers onto coasts as foreign as Ireland and Northeastern England.

All hurricanes are erratic and unpredictable but some are more wilful than others. The so-called paperclip or hairpin hurricane of the twenties, pirouetted north of Cuba – from Caribbean to Atlantic and back again, or like Flora, which in its leisurely circumambulation of eastern Cuba in 1963, provoked some of us to speculate that the United States was responsible, because we had heard that the Americans were experimenting in the use of weather as a weapon.

That is possible, according to Popular Mechanics magazine, which a few years ago reported on US military projects which would put the Pentagon in the position of owning the weather using sophisticated cloud seeding techniques, powerful lasers and microwave transmitters to steer hurricanes and create instant floods – among other divertissements..

I was reminded of this outlandish story by an advisory from the Tropical Hurricane Centre on Wednesday. The staff proudly announced that they had been graced by a visit from President George Bush. My slightly queasy response to this news was, of course, the paranoid reaction of one who, living in the Caribbean, feels menaced both by hurricanes and by the armies of the mighty and the ungodly. This is so especially when the scientists of the US Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFLD) predict that global warming will precipitate bigger, more destructive and more frequent hurricanes by warming the seas and so increasing the store of hurricane fuel. Mr Bush, on the other hand, dismisses the idea that there is any such thing as Global Warming.

By the time you read this, in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica and Cuba, we will be digging ourselves out from under whatever Ivan has chosen to throw at us. If the hurricane proceeds as was forecast on Thursday night, Portmore may be a disaster area. Nearly 30 years ago, some of us warned that the area was unsuitable for mass housing because, for a start, most of it was at or near sea level, with the highest point being just 3 meters (18 feet) above. If a hurricane Allen had struck Portmore – as it threatened to do – storm surge and over-topping waves might have killed a great number. And, with only two constricted avenues out of Portmore, a huge number would be trapped because they could not get out. (Which is the reason for the Doomsday Highway.)

In Jamaica, we have a functioning Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management – which some of us began to develop back in the much maligned seventies. One night in 1980, with the help of Prime Minister Michael Manley, we managed to move much of the population from Portmore in advance of hurricane Allen. We couldn't do it now; there are just too many people.

In neighbouring Haiti the slightest storm is likely to kill hundreds of people, because their landscape has been stripped and there is little vegetation to restrain the waters. Additionally, since February, the Haitians are leaderless, their society decapitated by the ouster of their President, their social networks disrupted by gangs of criminals who have been allowed by the moribund conscience of the world to assume hegemony over the poorest and proudest people of the hemisphere.

I won't go into the causes of their poverty nor the justification for their pride, We've been there before. But when so-called statesmen, Caribbean statesmen, can imagine turning over any group of human beings to the mercies of the thugs now ruling Haiti, one wonders not how their minds work, but whether their minds work at all. If there is an Ivan-precipitated disaster in Haiti the effects will be compounded by the fact that the leadership of the country is in the hands of people whose only skill is in mayhem and whose consciences are as dead and buried as the victims of their massacres going back three decades.

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Thinking about Haiti is particularly poignant because, as I write, one of the main 'statesmen' agitating for the continuing gang rape of Haiti is the Prime Minister of Grenada, whose residence, I understand, has been destroyed by Hurricane Ivan on its way to the Greater Antilles. All of us will be licking our wounds, all of us would wish to welcome assistance from abroad, but the Haitians alone will have no say in how their land and nation is resuscitated and repaired. In Grenada and in Jamaica, in the Dominican Republic, in Barbados and Jamaica and in Cuba, neighbourhood committees will see to the distribution of relief, will try to ensure fairness, will attempt to protect the weakest and to enlist the strong in their assistance.

That will not happen in Haiti.

Government is not simply a mechanism to pass laws and to run police forces. The main function of a government is to minister to the welfare and happiness of its constituents enlisting the constituents in the fulfilment of those purposes. In Haiti, the so-called government is an assemblage of bandits, murderers, greedy businessmen and their camp-followers. All over Haiti, so-called 'rebels' – armed to the teeth, remnants of the murderous and corrupt Duvalierist army and its auxiliaries, the Tontons, are busy taking over police stations and painting them in the colours of the hated army abolished by President Aristide. They are demanding ten years back-pay and recognition as official peace keepers. All over Haiti, the leaders of the communities, the people who worked for the welfare of their neighbours, however well or however ineptly, are in hiding or in prison or dead.

Questions of life and death, questions of whether children will get milk in preference to gangsters getting money will be subject to the arbitrament of the cutlass and the M-16.

Here, and no doubt in Grenada, Barbados, the Dominican Republic and certainly in Cuba, food, building supplies and welfare will be distributed with some modicum of fairness. In Haiti, the devil will take the hindmost – the youngest, the weakest, the oldest, the most helpless and of course, the majority who support Lavalas and Jean Bertrand Aristide, the democratically elected leader of the Haitian nation.


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