By Raffique Shah
December 05, 2022
If you know the Caroni River basin fairly well, and you are familiar with the Caroni River, if you have seen it overflow its banks after, say, two days of torrential rainfall, you will have seen floods spread rapidly, inundating everything along its banks for miles. Ever since I came of age and a rode a bicycle, and later acquired a motor vehicle, I have had many encounters with the flood waters of the Caroni, starting with cycling through Madras Road when the water was maybe eighteen inches high, which was challenging, but nevertheless something of a thrill for us boys, to driving through Kelly, St Helena and Piarco villages, having to skilfully use one foot on the vehicle’s accelerator to keep the exhaust functioning, and another on the brake pedal to control its speed.
I was among hundreds of motorists who slept in our vehicles on the incomplete north-bound lane of the Butler Highway back in 1987 (??) when floods rendered it impassable.
When I look back at my adventures with flooding, I realize that I can be a poster-geezer for floods. I was born in a flood in the then rustic village of Endeavour. My mother told me that on the day she gave birth to me, it had rained heavily and there was flooding even though it was early March. When she took baby Raf home, it was to a small cottage in Brechin Castle, not far from Pt. Lisas, where I would spend the next four years of my childhood, waking, sleeping and playing less than one hundred meters from the very deep and very active Couva river. Even as a child, I realised that flooding was serious business when my father warned me repeatedly to not go close to the river.
Yet, when we moved to Freeport in 1950, Pa had chosen to rent a house that literally sat on a bend in the Freeport river, which meandered south, then turned west, then turned back north, all around this plot of land on which we lived for four years and faced about one hundred floods. I exaggerate, but it felt like that since there were so many days on which we had to walk through flood waters to get inside the house which stood on stilts approximately six feet tall. When it rained, many nights we would awaken to the sound of water lapping just below the floor on which we slept.
We played in floods: innocently unaware of the dangers of water-borne diseases, although we were mindful of the pit latrine nearby that was also inundated in floods. Later in life it seemed to me that everywhere I lived, there were rivers, water courses and at Sandhurst, a beautiful lake into which flowed the rustic Wish Stream. So I know a thing or ten about floods. Post-army, when I chose to organise sugar cane farmers and help establish a food crop farmers association, I traversed this island from Waller Field and Barataria in the north to Barrackpore and Moruga in the south. Many occasions when I set meetings I had to brave flooded, pot-holed roads to get to those meetings. Often farmers would call saying to me, ‘Boss, the Papourie Road flooded’ or ‘Rock Road under water’. I have witnessed The Bamboos-all three of them, El Socorro South, Pasea, under water for days. Farmers who lived in these communities were inconvenienced, suffered severe losses of crops they will never harvest and livestock that perished by drowning.
I have recounted the history above to indicate that I know, I have experienced how floods can wreak havoc with people lives. A flooded house smells awful, sometimes for months after the event. The dampness seems to remain clinging to you as a constant reminder of the rush of muddy water, of moving to high ground to secure your person and belongings, the distress of the weeks if not months of cleaning in an attempt to rid a stench and stains that will never leave.
On occasions we would seek some assistance from government to get the worst affected farmers back on their feet. In Bamboo Two, where the houses were generally small and stood on wooden stilts, barely above the flood waters, and where, seeking safety, livestock joined man in the upper living and sleeping floor, the flooded communities rallied together to help each other. While they believed the government was responsible for keeping the main watercourses flowing, they knew that they had chosen to live in the Caroni River’s flood zone, hence they had responsibilities.
The Government did not compel them to live there, nor was the Government responsible for the heavier-than-normal rains that, from time to time struck. The Government definitely had no hand in unleashing the recent six-day deluge that was bound to flood everywhere it poured.
If you listen to ‘dotish’ talk, you would swear the government ordered WASA to open the valve in the skies above T&T.