Providencia: The fear never goes away

17.03.2021, Climate justice

In mid-November, hurricane “Iota” almost completely destroyed the Colombian island of Providencia. Its roughly 5000 residents lost everything, but are not giving up, says Hortencia Amor Cantillo, a direct victim.




Providencia: The fear never goes away

The hell in paradise
© Hortencia Amor Cantillo

My husband, my two sons and I have already been through two hurricanes. In 2005 we were hit by hurricane “Beta”; that was nothing in comparison to “Iota”, however. Both times the hurricane struck at night. Of course, we did not know how strong “Iota” would be, we thought it might perhaps be a category 1 or category 2 hurricane. When I realised at 4 a.m. that we were already up to a category 4 hurricane, I was scared, not least of all because the wall of our house was shaking. It was frightening. When you’re struggling with the storm all night, you can’t see the fear on people’s faces, as everything is dark, including the sky. The first impression comes from the destruction and desolation that greets you at dawn. It was like being in a state of shock: you simply cannot believe all that you’re seeing in front of you.

No roof over your head

This hurricane hit my family very hard, above all emotionally. We felt disoriented – so great was the destruction that we had no idea where to begin. Moreover, our tourism business – the small inn (posada) that was our livelihood and what kept us alive – had been destroyed. The Children and Youth Centre which I ran was also largely destroyed. I am now trying to see how to pick myself up again.

For the moment we still have four guests at our house, we were 27 people at first, or five families in one house. Most of them have somehow organised themselves and cobbled together small dwellings with sticks and sheets of metal on the lots where their houses once stood. Learning to live with other people, to display solidarity and share things with one another was also a new experience for us. It is one thing to greet one another from time to time and to visit people, but quite another to live together with them. We have started preparing one large meal for everyone, with each person contributing what they can. I thank God that we were able to help others. Many people have lost everything, literally everything. Many were left with just the clothes on their backs. Many had taken refuge in small toilet houses made of concrete, some of which were at least able to withstand the storm. Shortly after the storm the government sent camping tents, but they were of poor quality. It has rained a lot and the water would seep into the tents from underneath. They are okay for a few days, but some people have now been living in them since November 16th. They are complaining, as everything is wet. Those who got tents set them up on the concrete foundations that remained where their houses once stood, or in their toilet outhouses. It is very hard on those who have lost everything. The storm swept everything away. Even the roof on the second floor of our house was blown off completely; we have found one or two pieces, but no-one knows where the roof is now. Still, we have been lucky.

Fortune in misfortune

An NGO arrived about a week after the hurricane and began distributing one warm meal per day. Its personnel are stationed in different parts of the island. Here in San Felipe they are based in the Catholic Church. At midday they ring the bells and people gather to get lunch and a fruit. They are still here, but they too are finding it tough, as the food is prepared on San Andrés Island and brought in by air to Providencia. They are now trying to find a way to prepare the meals here on the spot and so get around the complicated logistics, which sometimes means that meals do not arrive on time. So far we have their support, for which I thank God.

The first thing being done by the government is restoring the roofs of those houses that are still standing; many roofs have been donated by private persons. They are now being installed with the help of the army, the national police, the merchant navy and air force, civil defence and the Red Cross. They are all here and helping with the reconstruction. But the process is very slow, especially for those whose houses were completely destroyed and are being rebuilt last. For those whose houses are still partly standing, things are moving a little faster, but we do not know how long this will take. Meanwhile, they are all making their studies and plans. We are doing everything to speed things up. Naturally, there are things we need help with. We will need machines to rebuild the beaches, and there is a lot of debris precisely along the shore, which we cannot remove by ourselves.

We intend to stay here

Nature will take longer to recover from this. There are some very big trees here – we call them “cotton trees”. I have been living on this island for the past 26 years and I always see these huge trees with their thick trunks, they must be very old. Many of them have now been uprooted altogether, some are still standing but have lost all their branches and leaves. It will take many years for these trees to grow back. The coral reefs too have been destroyed, and their rehabilitation will take a very long time.

The hurricane season comes around every year from July to the end of November. The fear is ever present, but we think it is unlikely that another hurricane of this magnitude will hit us. And we are not the only ones in such a situation. The coasts of the USA, Mexico and Nicaragua are also at risk from hurricanes. We know that it can happen again and again. I agree with my husband that from now on, every house must have a section made of concrete where people can take refuge. But disasters, earthquakes and the like are happening all over the world.

Someone asked me if I would like to leave Providencia. I said no, as there is some kind of danger everywhere. It is sad and it hurts, but we are here and we intend to stay here. For us, Providencia is a little paradise and we will do everything to build back our paradise.