June 22, 2017 Jwala Rambarran 10Comment

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!

10 thoughts on “Wake Me Up When It’s Over

  1. I totally agree with your perspective. If he ever proved his inadequacy as a leader, it was these last few days. Southerners are truly feeling the impact of Bret- I take 1.5 hours to get to the highway- a route that is usually just half hour. The roads are flooded and impassable, there is a higher degree of traffic through the only 2 access routes. Yet with our indomitable spirit, we plough on quietly each day. We will persevere in spite of the PM’s lack of leadership.

    1. “Southerners” are some of the nastiest people in this country. Let them feel the impact. The flood should have drowned some of them and washed them outto sea.
      I have personally witnessed heavy equipment cleaning drains and widened rivers all over South Trinidad. Then two days later truck loads of used tires, coconut from the vendors, chicken feathers and guts from the pluck shops, garbage from home construction, PVC ceiling material, damaged chairs and tents from the tent rentals, decorations and garbage from Hindu weddings, scraps from Auto air-conditioning shops, scraps from body repair shops, trees and bushes that people cut from their properties and whatever else they could dump illegally on the river bank and into the rivers.
      I have also seen equipment come in and clean up the Filth only to see it replaced within a week.
      Instead of looking at the reality and appropriating blame rightly the ignorant and uniformed blames the government.
      Let’s also talk about the Indians in South who are cutting down the hills and filling up the lagoons, without ensuring proper drainage is maintained, what about the silt created by these excavation works. Look at the color of the water, what do you see? I live in South and I witnessed the assault of the land by excavation last year and earlier this year as never before.
      Yet all over idiots are blaming Mr Rowley when they should be blaming the nasty Southerners and the money hungry Indians.

      1. While I do agree with some of your comments, I think it is utmost unwise and inappropriate to consider “Southerners some of the most nastiest people”…unless you have the facts that garbage being dumped are from South residents and not from other regions that dispose of in the South coast. Apart from this, we all know that the PNM gov’t is one that is clueless and dunce, a government of no vision, then again were there any black people who has ever reached the heights of the Indians? I guess not, all blacks do is thrive on others to get where they want too..just like the PNM and its toxic cabinet, they don’t care about indians, creole, dougla or otherwise…if they did, do you think there will be mass murders, high food prices, highest unemployment rates etc etc etc…and although your opinion reflects your image as “money hungry indians”…it is these indians that have created employed, invited Tom, Dick and Harry when any functions come up so people can eat some nice buss up shot, channa n alloo, pumpkin, etc. Oh and while the PP were in gov’t and up to this date is in Opposition, people still blame the esteemed Kamla for any wrong in this country…so why can’t Rowlee take blame now? Rowlee is the demise of this nation!!! He’s just an opportunist and I see it “he’s the never see, come see” PM…
        Just remember your wish for the indians to drown and wash out to sea…while plenty of your possibly “black brothers” are being and have been killed in Laventille, Enterprise…what more can I say… It means less votes for Rowlee next time around!!!!

      2. This isn’t really a rant about Trinidadians and their obession with dumping but a half-assed rant against Indians…

        Got it.

  2. Is it not correct to say that the Opposition were everywhere assisting victims of the flood? as part of the Government of the country it is their duty. It is so interesting that the Opposition choose to do this task that they claim is the responsibility of the Administration alone but refuse to establish Laws that could improve the management of the country.

  3. Very informative and interesting as customary….as the country and its people face the disaster and continue too, because it doesn’t seem the end of the bad weather, it just appears to be another inconvenience to Rolwey! Toxic governance I believe is words best describe this Rowlee gov’t who lacks compassion, empathy, the least to say common sense and most importantly leadership qualities. It still reels in my mind and so too many I am convinced “how the hell did this uneducated man who has no class, no intelligence and whom appears to be the biggest opportunist of this country, land one of the most integral position of this nation”….could we have had Russian interference (lol)? I fail to see how a nation of many scholars, logical and intellect, common sensed citizens would approve a party and leader of such minute vision if any at all, for the country’s future, No crisis management skills, No Character nor Integrity or even basic communication and this list can go on and on and on….However, as the country and its people try to regain consciousness and strength I can only hope that the citizens who are unaffected physically, materially and financially, can render some assistance regardless of how small it may appear to assist our brothers and sisters. As we are aware we cannot depend on the PNM gov’t for any sort of assistance nor comfort….For if it were the PP gov’t, they would have been called upon to compensate the victims and provide HDC houses to those affected…who’s going to provide what now I wonder!!!

  4. This annual charade of touring flood prone communities does absolutely nothing to improve the lives of the people who get to claim victim status several times each year. Will it ever end? granted anyone can get flooded out. But I am monitoring closely the madness on Madrass Road in St Helena, and have been observing it form some time now. Heading out of St Helena after the first sharp bend, “developers” back-filled all the land on the right; land which has been known to flood from the days of Moses. As a result the land on which the homes are built is really dry but the road level has remained the same. The one little drain in the area by the mosque is clogged with high bush, as is the other a bit lower down. In other words the water is now trapped with no place to go. Which government is to be blamed for this? Who authorized building in this area? And why must tax payer’s money be used to subsidize what is pure jackassery?

  5. It so sad that in this time of despair, when so many have lost so much, where so many don’t even know where to start from or who to turn to for help, that we are so caught up with ethnicity and political affiliation. We are quick to blame the government which is made up of the ruling party and the opposition, for every thing, sadly some of which is our doing. We keep fighting each other instead of helping, bring down instead of build.
    When are going to see that these so call politician, who are at each other throats in public, are bouncing class behind closed doors with each other and laughing with each other, while we fight amongst ourselves on words the speak.
    Its sad to see we are so divide when they are so united and it shall stay this way until we change ourselves.

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