Minutes of rain in the capital city leads to flooding, and it is a fact of life for those that live, work or traverse Port-of-Spain at any given point in the year. Flooding in the nation’s capital is also not a novel issue and dates to the city’s inception.
In 1796, Port-of-Spain was named under British rule. From 1802, the city underwent significant development that mainly defined the capital as we know it. Port-of-Spain’s boundaries at the turn of the 19th century were set by the St Ann’s River (also known as the East Dry River) to the east and, at the time, Richmond Street to the west, Park Street to the north, and the Gulf of Paria to the south. By 1899, it was extended to include Belmont, the East Dry River, and Woodbrook, where the Maraval River acts at the western boundary.
By 1914, Port-of-Spain was declared a city, and additional areas began to be included within its bounds like St Clair by 1917. However, on June 27, the infamous 1933 Trinidad Hurricane made landfall on extreme southwestern Trinidad as a category one hurricane. This powerful storm caused 13 fatalities and over US$60 million in damage (2021 dollars, adjusted for inflation) in damage. For the first time in recorded history, the East Dry River burst its banks during this hurricane, flooding Port-of-Spain.
In 1934, the East Dry River was paved, forever changing the river’s hydrology and introducing a new corridor from northern to southern Port-of-Spain. Between 1937 and 1938, land was reclaimed from the Gulf of Paria to develop western areas of Port-of-Spain. Over the next 60 years, the city was continually developed, but the drainage remained largely untouched.
Impactful and severe flooding continued in the capital. In 1967, intense rains led to major flooding that swept away homes in Port-of-Spain, rendering 11 people homeless. In 1993, another significant flood event took the lives of five people, left eight homeless, and caused approximately US$70,000 in damage.
In 2008, Port-of-Spain experienced some of its worst flooding in decades, occurring in September, November, and December, causing one fatality.
In the past five years, officials have had to rescue or recover those who unfortunately encountered the East Dry River’s rage, with at least four deaths recorded since 2016 with two people being saved.
Origin of the floodwater
Both the East Dry/St Ann’s River and the Maraval River begin in the northwestern mountains of the Northern Range and flow southward into the Gulf of Paria.
Water from the hills of St Ann’s, Cascade, Belmont, and East Port of Spain all filter into the East Dry River, including drainage from downtown Port-of-Spain itself. The Maraval River has a substantially larger catchment area, extending into the upper Maraval Valley and including Dibe, St Clair, St James, Mucurapo, and Woodbrook in west Port-of-Spain.
The causes of flooding in Port-of-Spain are multi-faceted. Port-of-Spain was developed in the flood plains of both the East Dry River and the Maraval River. As its name suggests, a flood plain is an area that naturally would flood if rivers exceeded their capacity. The Caroni Plains are another example of this in Trinidad.
The capital is also located at sea level. If heavy rainfall occurs in tandem with a high tide, watercourses quickly reach capacity, and there is nowhere for the water to go but up.
The type of rainfall that affects northwestern Trinidad also has its part to play. Across T&T, convectional precipitation occurs when warm air rises, leading to cloud formation and, eventually, rainfall. Along western Trinidad, including Port-of-Spain, sea breeze or westerly convergence brings moist air from the Gulf of Paria onto western coastal Trinidad, which is then heated by the land.
Generally, in Port-of-Spain and northwestern Trinidad, a high acreage of paved surfaces allows for stronger heating. When stronger heating occurs, the air close to the ground heats up rapidly and rises, with cooler air from the Gulf of Paria rushing in to take its place. This cycle continues, resulting in heavy showers and thunderstorms developing, dumping large amounts of precipitation in localized areas. In a warmer and changing climate, extreme rainfall events associated with convection-driven processes are projected to become increasingly frequent.
For nearly 100 years, drainage within the city and in these major rivers has been left unnoticed. Substantial development has limited the ground’s permeability, removing nature’s ability to absorb any rainfall and converting it into runoff.
Compounding the runoff excess, Port-of-Spain is at sea level. When water eventually makes its way to lower Port-of-Spain during a high tide event, there is nowhere to go as drains or rivers may already be filled with seawater. There was, and still is, for the most part, no gate system to allow the flow of water out of the city.
For the existing drains, the development of buildings and utilities has compromised critical culverts across the city. The Ministry of Works and Transport (MOWT) has pointed to a critical drain under the PTSC building at Henry Street and utilities such as WASA and NGC as some causes.
Finally, there is the issue of littering. Port-of-Spain Mayor Joel Martinez explained littering isn’t just limited to plastic bottles.
“You have residents or citizens that utilize and live close to the river that through solid waste into the rivers. When they cut down a tree, they throw the whole tree into the river, or they would through a washing machine or a dryer or an old stove or something like that,” he said.
Still, plastic pollution remains the most significant contributor to litter in the capital city.
Mayor Martinez added: “You have those people who utilize plastic bottles, and when they’re finished with the bottles, they throw it into the canal, and then the rains come and then carry the bottles into the underground drain. That goes into the watercourses, and that’s when you see the capacity of the drain now being further overloaded by a result of obstacles.”
Martinez also lamented that the Port-of-Spain City Corporation can’t clean the drains as fast as the people who dirty them.
“The city is being used every day by people, and it is a transient population. They do not live in the city, and when they do live in the city, they don’t care too much about what happens. They’re gone.”
A city without money
From the inception of Joel Martinez’s tenure as mayor, he recognized the issue and wanted to face the problem head-on.
He explained: “I met with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and they took me to various parts of the world to see what drainage would look like in other countries, how you part water aside, and how you enhance your infrastructure.”
Martinez also explained that loans were made available, and over the years, before his tenure, several studies were done, and plans were drawn up, but none were ever executed. As this occurred before his tenure, he couldn’t explain why. In the a Joint Select Committee report, a Flood Alleviation and Drainage Programme was created to undertake drainage works in various catchments in the city of Port-of-Spain. The report noted that “loan funding for this programme was intended to be sourced from the IDB. However, this did not materialize. Therefore, $2 million from the budgetary allocation was transferred to pay outstanding bills under another programme.”
As the pandemic hit, funding sources dried up, unlike flooding in the city, and now, flood mitigation measures were shifted to the city’s secondary list of priorities.
The city has chosen, in the interim, to ramp up maintenance of the capital’s drainage and ensure when water hits the ground, it can flow as freely as possible.
The mayor said plainly: “What we’ve been trying to do as a city since we have no money is to keep the drains constantly clean, so maintenance is foremost in our minds.”
In a comprehensive look at flooding across the country, a Joint Select Committee on Land and Physical Infrastructure report published in 2020, the MOWT conceptualized and implemented some flood mitigation measures pre-pandemic.
In tackling the littering issue, the MOWT and the City Corporation have cleared multiple culverts across the city and installed grills to keep the channels clean. Both organizations, pre-pandemic, worked every morning to monitor the installed grills. The Ministry also installed additional culverts in front of PTSC, a small detention pond, a pump gate, and a flap gate under the PURE programme.
They also completed two of Port-of-Spain’s eight planned catchment areas, with two more catchment areas planned to be developed in South Quay and near Hyatt. These catchment areas will allow the slowing of water into watercourses and alleviate flooding.
The MOWT engaged the Environmental Management Agency to close off a cove section near the Port-of-Spain Lighthouse. This would allow floodwaters to run into that area and be pumped into the sea. It would also be used as a garbage collection point to remove the garbage and prevent it from entering the sea.
The largest and most impactful project was the construction and installation of a gate and pump system at Broadway, near the Port-of-Spain Lighthouse, at the cost of $5 million. This system was able to pump water out of the city during rainfall events, but it was able to prevent tidal water from entering Port-of-Spain. This was part of a larger initiative to install similar systems at all seven culverts that empty into the Gulf of Paria. According to the MOWT, these systems reduced the frequency and duration of floods in the capital, with floodwaters receding after an hour.
However, the success of this flood pump was short-lived. On October 22, thieves struck.
“Preliminary investigations indicated that electrical cables and three 15KVA transformers were stripped entirely of their core. Additionally, four batteries and the automatic charging system used to support the two main pumps at Sea Lots also were stolen,” the Ministry confirmed in an official statement.
While two people were taken into custody, the investigation remained open.
Mayor Martinez exasperatedly explained: “Here you have where we worked, and we’ve spent money, a couple of million dollars well, to put these pumps in place to alleviate flooding. Then what happens is somebody vandalizes it who doesn’t care about the development of the city because they want to address their relief.”
Ill-fated early warning system
It is hard to miss the aqua tower with “Flood Alert” on its side as you drive into Port-of-Spain along Independence Square. However, this system, since it was installed. has never worked.
According to the mayor: “We purchased an early warning system and from what I understand, after purchasing it, which was on the advice of the City Engineer, we never heard any reports as to how, whether it is working, whether it is not working, whether it needed some form of technology or whatever it is. It appears they purchased the item, but they didn’t. I can’t give you any information on what happened thereafter because it has not been forthcoming.”
The Port-of-Spain City Corporation has partnered with Habitat for Humanity to make the capital a more resilient city by 2030.
The mayor explained: “Part of that is to look at the landslip development, how roofs fall off, the drainage and all these different things to be able to sustain an earthquake or hurricane or a difficult rainfall event that sometimes could affect us and create massive flooding.”
Retention ponds would also be ideal, as they would be able to slow the water entering the city’s limited drainage network, but it requires substantial investment.
“In the meantime, all we can do is ensure the drains are cleared, and we have our teams on standby. We encourage citizens not to throw solid waste into the rivers and then hope for the best that it is not a high tide when we have a system that really overpowers the infrastructure that we have,” the mayor added.
Littering, poor urban planning, and hillside development, to name a few factors, can exacerbate runoff and block waterways. However, with torrential rainfall and a limited-capacity drainage network, very little can be done to prevent drains, streams, and rivers from being overwhelmed.
Unless significant capital is expended to address the drainage appropriately and regular maintenance of the nation’s watercourses are conducted, a spilt bucket of water could still be enough to cripple a city and perhaps, take another life.