On August 10th 2012, disaster-level flooding and landslides ravaged the Diego Martin community, causing two deaths and destroying infrastructure and property. Two weeks later, Diego Martin and other neighborhoods in northwest Trinidad were hit hard by a second round of flash flooding, after the feeder bands of Tropical Storm Isaac produced several hours of thundershowers and steady rainfall overnight.
During this period, Keith Rowley, then Opposition Leader and MP for Diego Martin West, was most visible and active. He was on the ground within hours (even covered in mud) surveying the extent of the damage, visiting residents hit hard by the storm, and using his constituency office to distribute food hampers and relief supplies to flood victims.
Fast forward almost five years later to June 2017. Keith Rowley is now Prime Minister and Tropical Storm Bret has left in its path a trail of destruction mainly across the central and southern parts of Trinidad. No direct deaths or serious injuries were reported, but damage to property may be in the millions of dollars, even as water and electricity remain out in some hard-hit communities.
Throughout this national crisis, there has been a stark absence of leadership from PM Rowley and his Cabinet, who were missing in action during a challenging and stressful emergency that is severely impacting hundreds of thousands of people.
Rowley who was in Tobago when Bret hit on Monday thought it was best to reassure the country that everything was under control by having his office issue a written statement. This first piece of communication sought to inform the population that disaster preparedness plans and protocols had been triggered.
Then on Tuesday in the aftermath of Bret, came the second official communication on the national emergency. This statement thanked those who worked tirelessly to prepare for the storm’s passage and those who continue to render assistance.
There was no mention of what the Government intended to do to assist those whose lives had been turned upside down by Tropical Storm Bret. There was no acknowledgment of the damage done to communities across the country.
In fact, it was almost as if Prime Minister Rowley had said, “wake me up when it’s over.”
It was not until day three – Wednesday – after he met a storm of criticism on social media that PM Rowley decided to tour, albeit without even boots, communities in Penal/Debe, perhaps the worst affected area in south Trinidad.
His explanation as to why in the 24 hours after the storm passed, the Prime Minister took a backseat in the Government’s response was that he was busy managing the crisis in Tobago and unable to get a flight out and therefore couldn’t visit citizens any sooner.
Asked by one journalist about his whereabouts during the past three days, the Prime Minister belligerently replied, “You sounding like my wife.”
Rowley offered no apology for his absence, showed no contrition for his behavior, and demonstrated no sympathy to flood victims. In fact, several flood-affected victims at Debe Trace condemned the Prime Minister for remaining in his SUV while speaking to them through the vehicle’s window.
Two questions arise from this affair. First, why would anyone think a gesture like visiting flood-affected areas is important? Perhaps the prime minister ought to be doing something productive? Second, why did Rowley answer that he was busy overseeing the crisis in Tobago? Exactly what was it about a natural disaster that he could oversee without a centralized command structure in place?
But it is the first question that I want to discuss because it raises another, more important question: that of leadership.
The simple answer to the first question is that Rowley ought to have been visible during and after the crisis because that’s what prime ministers do. They engage in gestures, and whatever they may privately feel or not feel, they must show not only strength but also compassion and humanity.
Tropical Storm Bret inflicted heavy damage in opposition UNC areas. One wonders if Bret had damaged Diego Martin, Laventille, or Tobago where his PNM supporters are based would Rowley have behaved differently, as he indeed did in August 2012.
Prime Minister Rowley is responsible for the welfare of all of Trinidad and Tobago, not just parts of north Trinidad and all of Tobago. The Prime Minister represents the country at moments such as these, and his duty is to convey to the citizens the gravity of the event, the sorrow they feel, and that the state – personified by them – is not indifferent to their suffering.
Even if that heartache is postured, there is value in it. The philosopher La Rochefoucauld famously wrote that “hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue”. This is often understood to mean that the hypocrite who says one thing but does another, says what he says because he knows it is right. Even this basic posturing PM Rowley could not get right.
The true test for any leader comes when there’s a crisis. We look to our leaders for safety and direction that will lead to the return of normalcy to our lives. When faced with a crisis, the response of a leader has a major impact on how others perceive them as leaders, and whether they will be able to follow them in the future.
Back in 2010, on the day of the swearing-in of the People’s Partnership Cabinet, heavy rains caused massive flooding in some parts of the country. Then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar immediately left Knowsley, didn’t forget to don her boots, and toured a few badly hit communities.
Today, some seven years later, as Leader of the Opposition, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, together with her UNC MPs and Councillors, were on the ground, coordinating disaster preparations, surveying damage done by Tropical Storm Bret, visiting areas in south Trinidad hit hard by the storm, and mobilizing relief support.
Some UNC Councillors have been working tirelessly since Sunday night and I commend them for their heartfelt desire to provide relief to the persons they represent.
Whatever one might say about Kamla Persad-Bissessar, her leadership during this time of crisis has further endeared her to the people. Perhaps the one lesson Keith Rowley can learn from Kamla Persad-Bissessar is to understand empathy, publicly stating and recognizing the emotional and physical distress that citizens are experiencing and helping them work through their pain.
Trinidad and Tobago has gone without effective leadership for the past two years that it has made PNM political dysfunction look almost like a well-practiced art. Whether it’s an economy in coma, soaring and violent crime, a malaise in education or even deteriorating healthcare, Trinidad and Tobago has been desperately seeking leadership. Tropical Storm Bret is another example of PNM leadership failure.
Prime Minister Rowley will do well to remember: failure to lead during a crisis is not just a failure — it’s a tragedy. He proclaimed he’s red and ready and so he must lead. Or, he might eventually pay the political price for failing to lead!