PART CHOICE, PART CIR­CUM­STANCE: BEXON RES­I­DENTS' ETER­NAL DISPUTE WITH MOTHER NA­TURE, THEM­SELVES AND GOV­ERN­MENT

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By David Venn

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.

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