Unnatural Disasters

Damaged and diminished wetlands offer less protection to people and their homes.

On St. Martin, people are all too aware of natural disasters. We have been keeping a close eye on every possible storm since Hurricane Irma. We are trying to deal with the sargassum washing up on the beach in huge amounts. We have seen unusually dry seasons in most of the last five years.

We know that human activity has contributed to these problems. There are few climate change deniers in the Caribbean. Communities truly know their islands. There is a shared knowledge and memory of what is normal. This makes it easier to see when things have changed, even without satellite images or data models.

Many local problems have global causes. Stronger hurricanes and drier weather in the northeast Caribbean are both expected results of global warming. The sargassum blooms may be connected to fertilizer runoff in South America.

While these issues are very modern, people have been making natural disasters worse for a long time. This is the topic of a recent article by Oscar Webber, “The Plantation’s role in enhancing hurricane vulnerability in the nineteenth-century British Caribbean”.

Webber finds a big difference in the damage and death caused by hurricanes in Barbados in 1831 and Dominica in 1834. Barbados was completely deforested at the time, with sugar cane planted everywhere. There were massive landslides due to rain. Fields were destroyed and the mud swallowed livestock whole. With no forest to shelter in, many people died trying to survive the storm on open ground.

Unlike sugar cane, coffee plants have strong roots that hold soil.

On Dominica, much of the forest was uncut. The main crop was coffee, a plant with deep roots that hold the soil. No landslides were reported, and no request for aid was made. Although almost all buildings were destroyed, there were far fewer deaths.

On both islands, the plantation system meant that enslaved people suffered much more from these storms. Their dwellings were less secure, and many died. On Barbados, guinea corn was one of the main rations for enslaved people. The crop was destroyed in the storm. Many feared starvation. Two enslaved people stockpiling guinea corn were shot by colonial authorities.

Coastal mangroves have been destroyed for centuries.

There were surely similar issues on St. Martin. Sugar cane was grown on much of the island. We may have made some ponds more vulnerable when adapting them to salt production. By clearing mangroves we left shorelines unprotected.

We still do things that make natural disasters worse. We fill ponds and build on beaches. We depend on an industry that can be destroyed by a major storm. Slavery is over, but there is deep inequality on the island. There are thousands living in unsafe homes with insufficient resources.

Beachfront is valuable, but vulnerable, too.

What would you change to make St. Martin stronger before the next natural disaster? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to [email protected].

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