Thursday, March 18, 2010

Pick Up the Pieces

Written on Tuesday 16th March and published in The Fiji Times on Thursday 18th March, 2010

As we listen to and read reports of Hurricane Tomas, our thoughts go to our safety and the safety of our loved ones. We learn, with horror, of the destruction caused by wind, wave and rain; of lives lost or changed forever.

We learn, with relief, of miraculous escapes, of good people opening their doors and their hearts to shelter their neighbours (both literal and Biblical neighbours). The information we received helps us make decisions in the immediate situation as well as influencing our outlook on life in general.

As I sit in an old Methodist-mission quarters made out of Oregon timber early last century, my thoughts and prayers go to all those who are considered essential servants at this time, who leave behind their families and, perhaps, their fears to ensure that our basic needs are provided. Having worked previously in public service, commercial and State media organisations, I have had the opportunity to be part of the essential service of providing information during times of natural (and national) disasters.

The dedication of reporters, photographers, videographers, announcers and support staff in providing relevant and immediate information is something that goes beyond the usual journalistic competitiveness, or ego, to get the biggest story or the latest pictures.

It is during these situations that the professionalism, perhaps better termed as dedication to vocation comes through. Even with ongoing tension between State and media, personal and even professional disagreements are put aside for the sake of the nation.

As Tropical Cyclone Tomas became Hurricane Tomas, many people I spoke to began to make comparisons with Hurricane Bebe of October 1972 and Hurricane Katrina which hit the southern coast of the United States with devastating effect in 2005. My mother and father often shared a story of how the Volkswagon Beetle they were in almost got washed away off a flooded road in the aftermath of Hurricane Bebe. Many of us have heard similar stories or remember these events and many more know of Hurricane Katrina, the deaths during the hurricane, during the flooding that followed and due to the lack of immediate response from the US Federal Government.

When the closure of schools was announced on Friday, some questioned the decision as an overreaction. I am sure that those views have since changed as people were given time to prepare for what is now known as Hurricane Thomas.

Three months after Hurricane Katrina, Martha Paskoff Welsh of the Century Foundation wrote on the negatives and positives in terms of the response to the hurricane. Her views give us food for thought as we prepare ourselves to pick up the pieces and help those severely affected by Hurricane Tomas.

In terms of the negatives, Welsh writes that all levels of US government ... local, state, and federal ... failed to respond adequately or efficiently. Some, though, were worst than others. Here are a few lowlights: "Former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director, Michael Brown asked staff "Can I quit now? Can I go home?" in e-mails to staff while some 20,000 New Orleans residents were left unnoticed without food or water at the New Orleans Convention Center. Brown resigned shortly thereafter. With the mayor of Gretna, Louisiana's blessing, the police chief used shotguns to stop hundreds of weary, dehydrated New Orleans residents from crossing the bridge into Gretna to escape the submerged city. The mayor justified refusing the refugees because he said he had to protect his town. Hurricane Katrina revealed that America was still not prepared for a disaster, natural or otherwise. New Orleans was one of the nation's largest cities and there was advanced warning that the hurricane was going to hit. Still, local, State, and federal officials could not communicate with each other, in some places for several days, after the storm. There was terrible communication among Mayor Nagin, Governor Blanco and the White House in the days before the storm hit."

In the midst of confusion and despair, Paskoff Welsh finds positive actions and responses, which serve as inspiration for those of us who are not as affected by Hurricane Thomas as our fellow Fiji-Islanders in the Northern and Eastern Divisions.

She highlights the responses of ordinary American people: "lemonade stands to celebrity telethons, from housing refugees to sending tractor trailers filled with supplies to the Gulf Coast, American generosity and humanity was at its best."

In the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina, scores of nations throughout the world pledged their support and assistance with the recovery and rebuilding effort. Support came from throughout the world: Qatar pledged $100 million in assistance; Sri Lanka, which is still recovering from 2004's tsunami, offered $25,000 in aid; and even Fidel Castro offered to send medical support staff and supplies. Non-governmental and civil society organisations also played a major role in providing relief and rehabilitation. The American Red Cross provided more than $2 Billion in aid with volunteers and officials often reaching the affected communities in Louisiana and Mississippi long before government officials did. Habitat for Humanity built new homes for many of the residents left homeless after Hurricane Katrina.

Individuals and celebrity locals did their bit too. Harry Connick, Jr., the New Orleans native son was one of the first "officials" on the ground in New Orleans after the hurricane hit.

He was seen on national television without an entourage walking through the streets, dispelling rumours and news stories that the city was overrun by looters and rapists, and helping to expose the overwhelming sense of desperation and destruction in New Orleans. When the storm passes, and we take stock of the devastation, counting the cost and thanking the Divine for what remains, our nation needs to come together. All communities need to reach out over the political, cultural, ethnic, social and economic divide and help those who need to rebuild their homes, their businesses, their schools - their lives. The State will play its part, foreign countries and partner agencies will do their part. What will you do?

May the rest of your week be blessed with safety, security and the commitment to be a positive force in the wake of the negative storm.

* This article is the sole opinion of Rev. J.S. Bhagwan and not of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with.


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