Hundreds of Jamaicans living in Clarendon's southern coastal region could be exposed to a disaster of cataclysmic proportions if the island gets hit by a major weather system this year.
That frightening possibility was highlighted on Thursday by local scientists who pointed to the fact that approximately 1,600 hectares of the 3,500 hectares of mangroves stretching along the coast between Milk River and Salt River in Clarendon have been destroyed by human activity and intense weather systems, including Hurricane Ivan, which devastated Portland Cottage and other communities along that coast 19 years ago.
The scientists from The University of the West Indies (UWI) Solutions for Developing Countries (SODECO) shared their concerns at a forum staged in collaboration with the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation at Halse Hall Great House in Clarendon and which served as a Jamaica Observer Press Club.
The forum came on the same day that the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted a "near normal" hurricane season with 12 to 17 named storms packing winds of at least 39 mph (63 kph).
Of those, five to nine could become hurricanes, with one to four developing into major hurricanes.
The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30, with NOAA predicting a 40 per cent chance of a near-normal season, a 30 per cent chance of an above-normal season, and a 30 per cent chance of a below-normal season.
The SODECO scientists are engaged in a US$2.5-million Mangrove Restoration project being done in partnership with Sugar Company of Jamaica Holdings Limited and several other agencies.
Mangroves help protect populated areas by reducing erosion and absorbing storm surge impacts during extreme weather events such as hurricanes.
Immediately after Thursday's forum a tour of Peak Bay and Jackson Bay by SODECO representatives and Minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation Senator Matthew Samuda revealed the startling state of the degraded mangroves.
Pointing to the effects of Hurricane Ivan on Portland Cottage, UWI SODECO Programmes Manager Angeli Williams said a repeat of a natural disaster of that magnitude could be disastrous.
"We know we had loss of lives, but what you've realised is that the mangroves have suffered significant dieback and degradation since. A recurrence of Hurricane Ivan can potentially be catastrophic, worse than what we saw in 2004 if we don't do something about these mangroves forest," she said.
Her colleague, SODECO Chief Scientist Terrence Forrester said it will take a long time to get mangroves back to levels before 2004.
"When you want to stress measured and slow movement, watch grass grow. Watching trees grow is actually a slower process. So even though we might get there by the end of 2024... the conditions will rise," said Forrester.
"Getting those mangrove trees back up is a fight, so I think we are playing hurry up because they died in 2004. But there is no way we can accelerate it at the moment," he added.
The project is expected to provide healthier mangroves for more fish and shellfish for local consumption, increased coastal protection against hurricanes and storm surges, flood regulation and mitigation and carbon sequestration, which is critical in combating climate change.
The National Environment and Planning Agency, Ministry of National Security, Planning Institute of Jamaica, Inter-American Development Bank, and the United Kingdom Government are collaborating on the project.