Worried about the heavy rains like thousands more residents, Jizzelle Baldwin kept trying to get home last Friday evening, but all the usual routes in Central Trinidad were already cut off. As the smelly, ochre waters rushed in from the turgid Caroni River nearby, swamping significant swathes of the fertile plain, her family decided to opt for the remaining Mon Plaisir road. Even in their sturdy Nissan Frontier, the young mother, her husband Chikara Todd and their nine-year-old son, Kayleb soon had a hard time navigating the inundated stretch.
Yet, they did not hesitate to help when they came across an abandoned car overtaken by the epic flood. Racing to the top of the road they spotted the former occupants, a bedraggled stranger struggling through the deluge clutching his three young children, scared, soaked and shivering in the cold. With the levels quickly rising around them, the four squeezed in. Suddenly there was no going back as the swells swirled in. Desperately searching for a higher area, they came to what looked like an abandoned parking lot, but it was blocked by a big, heavy iron gate.
Their rescued passenger Mark Gentle immediately jumped out. “I have never seen anything like it, Mark, he had superhuman strength” Baldwin marvelled in a recent television interview, “he pulled it and he pulled it and he pulled it until he ripped it out…”
For two whole hours they were fine until that area, too, was breached. “That’s when I started to panic,” she admitted. The two families would spend an agonizing 16 hours, most of it in darkness, looking out for trapped animals like swimming rats, grown caimans and dangerous snakes, while anxiously waiting for official help that never came despite repeated cellular calls to the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM), the Police and the Fire Service. Advised to conserve power, Baldwin switched off her phone. Not having eaten in hours, she tried to avoid thinking of her diabetic condition and the consequences of hypoglycemia, when blood sugar decreases to below normal levels, causing clumsiness, confusion, loss of consciousness, seizures and even death.
Sharing their only food of a few packs of honey roasted cashew nuts and apple juice among the hungry, crying, tired youngsters, aged one, two and five years, she tried yet another call. Nothing. Eventually it hit her, “No one was coming.”
Ten minutes to midnight, Jizzelle Baldwin posted a forlorn update on her Facebook (FB) page, “Stuck in my van in surrounding flood waters for the past 4 hours. Water keeps rising. This is the worst.” Ten hours later, she wrote, “I appreciate all the calls but the ODPM asked for me to keep my line free. We are still stuck. A boat came to try and help us, but the current was too strong and pushed it back and the boat has lots of water in it now. We are still waiting for help.” She explained her predicament in a comment on the Prime Minister’s page, and it went viral.
An unknown man would bravely try swimming across to them, but he was overtaken by the torrent, and swept into an old canefield. Like the two trapped families, he was also rescued eventually by “some amazing citizens” who put their dawdling government to shame. These indomitable volunteers were part of an impromptu army who promptly answered the social media summons during the latest natural disaster, and risked their lives trying to reach and assist others, most choosing to work quietly and anonymously using their own funds, boats, food supplies and resources.
Baldwin has no doubt she was saved by, “The citizens of Trinidad and Tobago.” She recounted on FB in an October 21, 2018 post that the, “One small boat could not make it through the rough current and had to turn away when they got close, another one took on water when we had the children in it and we had to throw out water from the boat and try again. On the third attempt, a wonderful man and his friends who saw my plea on Facebook rescued us: Simeon Santoo, Brandon Thomas and Dave Mahadeo. I want to thank you all so much for even walking with supplies for my low blood sugar, assisting me into the boat and going as far to check on me today (Sunday) because my state yesterday (Saturday) had them worried. YOU ARE ALL HEROES! This experience despite being terrifying also is an eye opener on how as a country, we can help each other!”
Her harshest words were directed at the National Security Minister, for his public statements that her plight was politically staged. “The saddest and most disheartening part of this entire ordeal is how grossly negligent, irresponsible and defamatory Minister Stuart Young was with his statements about my plea not being real.” At one point the Minister flew over the stranded group in a helicopter. “We did see the helicopter and tried waving for help but please tell me, Minister, does your helicopter have x-ray vision? Was I supposed to jump out and swim hoping you’d see my flailing arms? Tote 4 kids on my head as a totem pole and poke the helicopter?” Baldwin snapped. The obvious gaping
disconnect between the administration and the public was not lost on her. “He clearly does not care but you know what? The citizens of Trinidad and Tobago did, and I thank each and every one of you for your support!” she stated. However, she worries, “Imagine if people believed his irresponsible and negligent statement and did not continue to help us! I am scared to even think about what could have happened!”
Critics slammed Young and the Government for their lack of compassion in ordering all Trinis back to work on Monday. In several parts of the island, low-lying communities were particularly hard hit, and some cut off for days in the continual rainfall caused by the recurring convergence of a tropical wave and the usual Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), the key weather system near the equator where the northeast and southeast trade winds or doldrums converge in a low-pressure zone that contributes to global air and water circulation.
With water reaching the ceilings of houses, leaving behind an ugly mud strewn mess, destroying the contents and the dreams of those who lived there, victims are understandably traumatised at having lost in hours all that they worked for in a hard lifetime. These are distressing scenes that have become all too common with each big storm, as the affected lug their drenched dogs, stunned children and small garbage bags, wading through waist high dirty waters to face the unknown, suddenly bereft of cars, homes and the objects that define us.
One woman pointed out there was “not a Councillor in sight… no Army…no Fire (Officers)…no Police… no MP… no ODPM… nothing in Ramlal Trace, Warren. (Cunupia, Central Trinidad). The neighbours came together to rescue those trapped…the ordinary good citizens were cooking (and) sharing food (and) water. Not a single piece of rescue equipment was there from the protective services.”
Two tremors reminded us on Monday, that Trinidad and Tobago like much of the Eastern Caribbean rests uneasily in a seismically active region, even as the damaging floods have left alarming questions and growing concern about how well equipped the nation is, to cope with a real disaster such as a category four hurricane or a major earthquake. Possibly facing the greatest development challenge of increasing weather extremes certain with climate change, countries like Guyana also have to draw hope from the heartwarming images of ordinary Trinis doing extraordinary things, and to continue believing that calamities can bring out the best in us as well.
ID agrees with the commentator who argued “we have to lookout for each other” and “the graves don’t care if you belong to either (major political) party.”