Waiting for Beryl in Jamaica

Feature image of avocados via Canva Pro.

In Samuel Beckett's “Waiting for Godot,” often described as the play in which nothing happens, the two main characters basically talk to each other under a leafless tree while awaiting the arrival of the mysterious Godot, who never shows up. The Caribbean in hurricane season should be so lucky.

Instead, characters — because it often feels like an apocalyptic movie scene — huddle under shelter, too apprehensive to talk much as they await the arrival of the storm du jour, which almost always shows up. For these islands on the frontline of the climate crisis, it is an annual pilgrimage to Beckett's leafless tree, assuming any trees remain standing.

This year, which has the dubious distinction of being forecast to be one of the most active Atlantic hurricane seasons in history, has seen Hurricane Beryl break all sorts of records, and with it, far too many lives.

As the Category 4 storm barrelled towards Jamaica on the evening of July 2 (the storm is predicted to hit on Wednesday, July 3), having already battered the Caribbean's Windward islands, writer and environmentalist Diana McCaulay wrote eloquently on Substack about the experience of waiting for the storm that was sure to come.

“The day before a storm has certain features,” she said. “It is hot, airless and so still that a storm seems impossible. The roads are corked due to traffic – people trying to get home, stock food and water, buy groceries. The talk is always how the storm will swerve at the last minute and save us. Jamaica is lucky, man. Special. Everybody knows that. Folks on social media will inveigh against negativity and object to bad things being wished into being. Prayers will be said. We’ll reach out to family and friends – you batten down? You off the road? You got your meds? And everywhere people will tek serious ting an mek joke.”

She herself got stuck in traffic that was so bad she felt there must have been an accident, but no, the roads were simply snarled from storm stress — people anxious to get supplies, to be as prepared as possible for effects that are impossible to anticipate.

Still, McCaulay said, you do what you can: “The radio stations send out bulletins — various companies are closed, drain cleaning is nearing completion, the utility and communications companies are ready for the hurricane. The online weather sites show slightly conflicting models as to track and intensity — but on this occasion the models are in fair agreement. Hurricane Beryl is a major hurricane, at this writing forecast to be Cat 4 when it hits or passes close to Jamaica and right now, it looks like a direct hit. The words ‘devastating’ and ‘catastrophic’ are used in every broadcast, along with ‘life-threatening’.”

For her part, she wondered how the avocado tree in her yard would fare. She did not prune it this year because it was bearing, and by the time she realised she should, it was too late: “All tree cutters, carpenters, roofers, electricians and plumbers were fully occupied. Maybe tomorrow the pear tree will fall. Maybe on one or both of us. If it holds up, the pears will be gone.”

Even in the midst of all these questions, all these emotions, she was not afraid, though she was well aware her life could completely change within a matter of hours: “Our house could be severely damaged, even destroyed, we could lose almost every possession. We could be injured, killed, transformed into a statistic. I tell myself: that could happen any day. I’m tired and achy from all the preparations, but also feel a small satisfaction at getting through the tasks. We’ve done what we can. I’m glad Beryl is moving quickly and will hit during the day — a hurricane at night is truly terrifying.”

Her emotions also meandered towards concern for others more vulnerable than she is, living in “flood prone areas, riverbanks, the coast, beside gullies, on steep hills, in remote places which will inevitably be cut off by the hurricane. The island’s landscape will be remade, I know this from hurricanes past, trees will fall, hillsides will come down, the coastline will be redrawn. And there will be damage, maybe even disastrous damage, to the island’s infrastructure and to many, many homes.”

Mostly, though, McCaulay felt anger. Recalling an interaction she once had at the office of the Jamaica Environment Trust, the NGO she founded, in which she asked the CEO of an oil company “how could he participate in this awful industry” and he replied, “Well, if we don’t someone else will,” she laid bare the reality of the climate situation we all face.

“[T]he governments of the world [have] met and talked and failed to act on the threat of the climate crisis, which scientists have warned about for decades, the warming spawning more intense hurricanes. For months we’ve heard about the high sea temperature of the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. I’m angry at the oil companies, those multi billion dollar corporations led by ordinary men and women who have lied and obfuscated and told us to calculate our carbon footprint because it was our use of their products that was the problem. Yeah, fossil fuels built our civilization, I concede that, I use their products, am using one now (before I get infuriating comments to that effect), but they also have compromised the very atmosphere of our planet, the earth’s climate and the same civilization they gestated.”

“So here we are,” she concluded as she and her compatriots prepared for as yet unknown levels of devastation. “It seems we — humanity — cannot imagine another way of living on the earth, a better, fairer, more respectful way, and due to that failure of the imagination, we will watch it all burn, flood, melt or vanish in the whirlwind.”

Much like “Waiting for Godot,” the process of waiting for Beryl has revealed the rawness of human tragedy whispered on the winds of every brutal hurricane season. Caribbean people — like the residents of all small island developing states — are tired of waiting for things to be different.

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