Several families at Ramlal Trace, off Bejucal Road, Cunupia, say they were kicked out of the Munroe Road Hindu School - a designated flood shelter - on Monday, after they sought shelter there on Saturday.
Antoinette Jaikaran, 58, told Guardian Media she and her family were told they needed to leave the school’s compound as clean-up crews were going in to sanitise the compound for the resumption of classes yesterday. She said she was told to leave by Chaguanas West Member of Parliament Ganga Singh.
“Ganga Singh said we need to leave the school because it had to be sanitised for school on Tuesday - he told us we had to leave, but I said we have nowhere to go. He said take whatever we used from Saturday night - like the mattresses, clothes, whatever we used and we would have to leave. I get somebody to take the mattresses to a friend of mine to leave it there because we couldn’t bring it home, it would get wet up,” Jaikaran said.
A frustrated, Jaikaran said she returned to her home and tried to begin clean-up operations. But when it started raining again, her frightened daughters convinced her they should return to the school for the night.
Jaikaran said she dropped them off at the school and returned home to continue cleaning up, but her daughter Trisha said when they got into the school Singh told them they could not stay.
“Singh walked up to us and said’ ‘What are you all doing here?’ So I told him the water is still in our house, we just burst the walls to let it run out and we can’t stay there so we came back just to spend the night there,” Trisha said.
“He asked, ‘Where are your mattresses, we gave you all mattresses already?’ So I told him we had moved the mattresses when they told us move in the morning, so we put it by one of our friends up the road. He said, ‘Well if you have no mattress, we can’t keep you here.’ My sister told him it wasn’t a problem, we could ask someone to bring the mattresses back for us so we could at least spend the night there. And then he said, ‘No, the better thing to do is go to the temple because the school already sanitised and it needs to be opened tomorrow.’”
Trisha said she felt embarrassed and dehumanised by Singh’s words.
“He treated us like we were animals...we felt real bad knowing we couldn’t stay home and we couldn’t stay there.”
Several houses away, John (not his real name) was also fuming, claiming his family received similar dehumanising treatment. When Guardian Media visited the family yesterday morning, they were just starting to clear out their water-logged belongings. Thick slush covered their floors and during the interview, as John was carrying out items from the house he slipped and fell. His worried family members rushed to his side and helped him up.
Around 11 am, a group of Good Samaritans arrived to help the family pressure wash their walls and floors.
“We never thought the water was going to come so high and by the time we realised what was going on it was too late to save much of our stuff. Saturday evening, my wife and daughter were standing in waist-height water cooking in the kitchen because we had nothing to eat and we were starving.”
John’s wife said with no choice left, she washed rice which had been contaminated by floodwater and cooked it for her family.
“I didn’t have a choice, I have children and grandchildren, we couldn’t just starve,” she said.
When a boat finally came to rescue the family they were taken to the Munroe Road Hindu School.
“When we got there, Ganga Singh was there, he said he was coordinating the relief. We were given mattresses to sleep on and we each got one suit of clothes but when we asked for more to bathe and change, they told us there was none,” John said.
He said he and Jaikaran appealed to a member of the public for clean underwear for the women and children.
“This man came and we begged him to bring some new underwear, at least for the ladies and the children, but when he came back with the bag, the school’s caretaker took it from him and put it in a stock room. We never got it to use.”
His wife said she was forced to bathe and wear the same clothes she had on before.
“I turned my underwear over and put it on when I bathe, they didn’t have to do people that. If we had a choice, you think we would have gone to that shelter and take that kind of treatment?” she asked.
John said on Monday his family was also told they needed to leave the shelter.
“I told Singh that we couldn’t come home and sleep in the house because it was wet and stink but he said we had no choice, we couldn’t stay in the school anymore. They told us take the mattresses we slept on and they gave us a bag with a small bleach, a small detergent, a small disinfectant and a small fly spray and told us go home and clean up.”
John said when he returned home there was still water inside his house. His family of seven piled onto one bed and slept together in one of the bedrooms, their doors unable to lock because of the water damage.
“The doors gone through, we lost almost everything in this house and Singh treat us like we was trying to get something free from him. He didn’t have a right to treat people so.”
John said his grandchildren cried on Saturday night after being turned down when they asked for a meal.
“They tell the children they couldn’t get the food until they had boxed out to carry for people in other areas.”
He said when the children were finally given meals, he refused to eat.
“I worked my whole life and build for my family, if the water didn’t come up so high and flood us like this I would have stayed in my house and provide for my family. They made us feel like scavengers in that place, I told them keep the rest of food, I didn’t want any.”
However, despite the way they were treated while at the shelter, his children did what they could to assist in packaging items for other flood victims.
Chaguanas West MP Ganga Singh has dismissed allegations he treated Bejucal residents badly while they were staying at the Munroe Road Hindu School shelter after fleeing floodwaters in their homes on Saturday.
In an interview with Guardian Media yesterday, Singh said the complaints were a case of “more greed than need.” He said he arranged for the school to be opened as a shelter and the relief efforts provided to affected residents were done by his team in coordination with Trade and Industry Minister Paula Gopee-Scoon. He said the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management did not assist in any way.
“We got mattresses from a private donor and we provided them with the mattresses, then a lot of water came and together with Gopee-Scoon, nothing came from ODPM, but ODPM had a representative who they felt ought to have been in control and that is the problem,” Singh said.
“There is a lady from the area who felt they ought to be in control - so they stayed there Saturday whole day, Saturday night, Sunday whole day, remember the school is a school and the water had receded so the clean-up started.”
He said he was firm but kind to those who stayed in the shelter.
“I had a meeting in the morning and I said, ‘All the beds that you have utilised you take them home, you have cleaning supplies, you start to clean up your property because we have to sanitise for the school to take place. The nature of the environment was that people were emotionally charged, so you have to be fairly clear of how long you are going to stay. They left in the morning and they were fine. In fact, their parents stayed in their home but what you had was a representative claiming to be from ODPM, one troublemaker in the community trying to assert authority in the areas and we dealt with that.”
He said those in the shelter were given all that they needed during their time there.
“We were very clear and very helpful to all of them, but there are limits to what you can do and how you appreciate what the facility can do. I don’t know what to say about their allegations, what I do know is that you had a level of greed rather than need.”
Singh said the items that were donated were also distributed amongst several communities, including Caroni, Harlem and Warrenville.
Asked who made the decision to close the shelter and send the families home, Singh replied, “The decision to do that was mine because we had to move out…but I didn’t close the shelter, what I did was to move out the resources out of the area. If the ODPM wanted to bring people and sustain the shelter, that is their business but there was no decision to close the shelter - the decision I said was for me to move out with my voluntary team.”
Contacted on the issue yesterday, Education Minister Anthony Garcia, who gave the word to convert several schools across the country into shelters for the period, said he spoke to the school supervisor for the area who told him the school was still being used as a shelter. However, he said he would investigate whether the Maha Sabha board had rescinded their approval for the school to be used as a shelter.
- by Sharlene Rampersad