PART CHOICE, PART CIRCUMSTANCE: BEXON RESIDENTS' ETERNAL DISPUTE WITH MOTHER NATURE, THEMSELVES AND GOVERNMENT
Bexon residents have the profoundly unlucky circumstance of living in one of the most flood-prone areas in all of Saint Lucia and, judging by the volume of memes floating around the internet, maybe even the Caribbean. It’s become cliché, almost, to talk about Bexon’s dysphoria and bring it up in the conversation of things that need to be fixed in Saint Lucia. Statements such as “Bexon always floods" or "Bexon is known for flooding" or "That’s just Bexon” normalize a detrimental and frustrating disaster that occurs more often than is generally realized. Having a leaky roof is unsettling; imagine that leak expanding throughout your entire home, letting in water up to your bellybutton. No one likes wet bellybuttons. For one Bexon resident, the height of the water reaches far past his bellybutton as he points to a spot on his door frame, level with his chest.
Francis John has lived in Bexon for over eight decades. At 84 years of age, he still lives in the same region he’s been nestled in his whole life. A rising water level is more precarious for him because he is in a wheelchair, with two amputated legs. Little floods happen often at his house but, between Francis and his helper, Mary Alphonse, they are able to vacuum and push the water out when it’s not too threatening. When it does get serious, they have to salvage whatever they can and bunk at their friend’s house until the water level decreases. “There is nothing we can do to protect ourselves,” he says. This situation, by no means, is an outlier. In Bexon, building houses on stilts is a necessity to protect against water damage.
Francis says that in the 80 years he has been living in the region, nothing sustainable has ever been done by any government and the problem is worsening. “Everything that the government tries, it doesn’t work for the people,” he says.
The present administration cannot take complete blame. Says Nicole McDonald, the prime minister’s Senior Communications Officer, the budget for the project was available to the previous administration, yet it sat idle with no plan and no further instructions or details to solve the problem. She says that it is completely unacceptable and that there are no excuses for the procrastination. That is why the Disaster Vulnerability Reduction Project was introduced in February of this year. The DVRP is a national project set out to do exactly what is exhibited in the title: reduce disaster vulnerability. It is a comprehensive plan that specifies solutions to major components, that will further divide and narrow into subcategories. The components are made to create a fullcircle solution to this national dilemma.
The first focuses on risk reduction and adaptation measures; for example, rerouting or rehabilitating preexisting pipelines and drainage systems. Component two is about assessing and applying climate risk information. This is for better understanding what we face as an Atlantic island, and the probably inherent crises that come with that. Component three is about financing climate adaptation, which is for available loans and funding. Component four pertains to emergency response, and component five is essentially about enforcing this plan and making sure it carries on to completion.
On February 20, the consultancy group hired by the DVRP signed the contract and, with that, meetings were underway.
Cheryl Mathurin, project manager for the DVRP, says they are currently entering the second phase of the project, and are waiting for the consultancy firm to get back to the community on the solutions. If the community believes the solutions can be applied practically, the project will move forward come late August/early September.
According to Bexon residents, this is exactly the process that for years they have needed. After all, they are the ones actually living the misery, and they have a flurry of potential solutions. Some say that the river needs to be widened and cleaned, others that it needs to be completely re-routed from the top of the mountain that the rain rolls down, and government should clean out the whole river, not just in certain areas. The residents complain that there is “no vision, no-one to supervise works being done".
The DVRP is aiming to change that. Says Mathurin: “We are trying as much as possible to get community involvement and community participation, based on the problems they experience.”
Well, residents like Francis have lots of ideas, but obviously cannot complete the work. “To be honest, sir,” he said, “I am not an engineer.” Which is fine, because Lester Arnold is an engineer, and he is leading the group of appropriately qualified personnel that will formulate the solutions for the area.
Arnold says enforcing fluctuations in the river with retainer walls to help manoeuvre water out of the region efficiently is a possible solution. In addition, they are looking to expand the capacities of existing drainage structures. He says the present drains are inadequate. But this is just the beginning, and only part of the solution. Arnold explains that there is an area in the budget for tools and training, so that residents can learn to maintain the community and drains.
Mathurin says that, in relation to Bexon, the DVRP wants small-sized contractors to carry out the work and for engineers to help train the community on better waste management practices. For example, how to properly discharge water from rooftops. The idea of training the community is needed. Even community members realize they need to take better care of their drainage system. One Saint Lucian who works in the area says she recalls seeing refrigerators and stoves in the river bank. Francis also says it’s not only circumstance, but that a lot of the problems are caused by the residents carelessly maintaining their community. For the success of the DVRP, everyone involved has to be committed. The consultants will have to provide proper and sustainable solutions for the mass flooding and the residents will have to manage what will be created.
The next meetings have been scheduled for August. So, for every Bexon resident who has ever lost a couch, treasured picture, a favourite pair of shoes or way more in a flood, this is the time to attend meetings. Make your voice heard and solve the problems that have plagued the region from as far back as the octogenarian Francis can remember.
With a proper drainage plan, building houses on stilts will become an exterior design trend rather than a necessity for protection.