Hurricane, no, Tropical Storm, err, no, Tropical Depression Tomas

Whatever it is, it’s coming. I’ve been closely monitoring the situation (because, let’s face it, I’m a weather geek), and I’m legitimately worried. Regardless of where this thing goes, or what intensity it attains before it gets there, things look B-A-D for Haiti and the Dominican Republic. We’ll be fine, I think, as I’ve written out our emergency plan, made a checklist for evacuation/no evacuation scenarios, and, well, I’ve been expecting the potential for this since last Friday. A lot of people on this island (and within the Embassy, I might add) are brushing this off because it’s not going to be a direct hit. While hurricane-force winds can and do kill a lot of people, the main problem associated with this system is the water. You know, rain. Lots of it. With over 85 percent of the trees in Haiti gone due to deforestation, even 3-4 inches of rain in a 24-hour period will kill hundreds, if not thousands. And the Dominican isn’t in much better shape w/r/t preparedness. Flooding and land/mudslides figure to be the biggest threat, and since we don’t know the exact track or speed for this storm, the situation is dicey.

Looking at things the way they stand right now, Tomas looks to pass to the west of Hispañola as a Category 1 ‘cane. On the surface, this is good for Haiti as they won’t be dealt a devastating blow by the winds (seeing as somewhere above 50 percent of people in Port-au-Prince are still living in tents). But looking a little more closely at the satellite and radar, there is a HUGE amount of moisture associated with this storm, and moisture means rain. If Tomas slows down ans bends eastward just to the north of Hispañola, we’re looking at several days of heavy rains, to the tune of anywhere between 6-20 inches. I’m not a meteorologist, and my predictions are far from scientific, but I have been watching this storm develop (then fall apart), and I’m seeing potential for dangerous amounts of rain for the whole island.

One thing I’ve noticed lately is the talk of “What has Haiti done to deserve all this?” Well, nothing. The real question is “What have we done to prevent this?” That answer is “nothing” as well. Most of Haiti’s problems stem from them being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and having an ineffective, largely corrupt government. All the aid in the world can’t change the important fact that little of it ever reaches the Haitian people. The high cost of petroleum led to the deforestation of the western third of this island (see: poor people aggressively cutting down trees to use as charcoal to perform the most basic tasks of heating houses and cooking) and the construction of poorly-built housing in flood plains and high-risk zones leads to high death tolls with relatively little rainfall, as rain water flows unimpeded down mountainous slopes into densely-populated areas. While not as high, the same risks exist in the western part of the Dominican Republic, as the levels of poverty out there are exceedingly high.

I read in the news yesterday that 8 or 10 houses in Santo Domingo were swept away by the high seas we’ve been having. The areas nearest the water, unlike in the States, are actually pretty poor areas. Dominicans with money do not want to live near the water, as hurricanes do a lot of damage to coastal areas. Following this, the people who live across Avenida George Washington (El Malecón) live in poor conditions. The threat of the high seas associated with this storm pose a huge threat to these under-served populations. Add this to an emergency infrastructure which either cannot respond, or does not want to respond to calls due to the danger associated with storm surge, and we have a grave situation within the limits of the Distrito Naciónal.

I am prepared. My family will be safe. We also have the money and might of the U.S. Government here to bail us out if things take a turn for the worse (DSS, RSO, Marines, well-built housing, safe havens, regular security patrols, potential for evacuation). When I think of the millions of people living here who do not have these resources available to them, I feel sad. We’ll all go through the same trouble, but the lack of preparation and resources that hinder the development of this country will make this situation that much more dangerous for the Dominican people.

(Update: Well, more of a shameless plug…. Thanks to my friend Ian Connor over at Mossberg, we got an advance version of one of the ASAP Survival Packs. It’s the Sentinel Pack. While I’m not much of a Doomsday-preparer and hoarder, this pack is great. Everything we need to get by for 2-3 days without anything else. Anyone who lives in a disaster-prone area should look into one of these. They’re highly-customizable to your needs, and easy to port. Just sayin’.)

So, yes, I’m worried. But I know what to do, and we have a plan. We’ve offered up our house to friends who live close to the water and to the Peace Corps volunteers who could be affected. We’ve got plenty of food, plenty of water, a full tank of diesel in our generator, extra charcoal, etc., and we won’t have many problems if we need to hunker down for a few days. Unfortunately, only a very small fraction of the population here has the same luxuries as we do. If anything, this potential disaster will make me and my family appreciate all that we have that much more. Another lesson (potentially) learned in the Foreign Service.

Mahalo, and wish us luck. See you on the south side of Tomas.

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