I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll…

It’s not just the CPD that tried alerting us to the danger. The Bible did it almost 2,000 years ago, too. And still we don’t listen

The Birgu pontoon was dislodged so that yachts were sandwiched against yachts moored onto another pontoon
The Birgu pontoon was dislodged so that yachts were sandwiched against yachts moored onto another pontoon

I have a feeling that – in a future era, when the submerged remains of what was once ‘the Maltese archipelago’ are eventually rediscovered – historians and archaeologists (possibly even biologists) will marvel at how the Maltese race actually survived as long as it did. How on earth did our collective stupidity, as a nation, not drive us to extinction sooner?

 A cursory glance at the weekend’s chaotic events would be a good place to start. On Saturday, the Civil Protection Department – which incidentally deserves a huge round of applause for a job well done – issued a general warning for all people to stay indoors; or (if staying indoors was too much to ask) to at least avoid areas known to be dangerous in heavy weather: e.g., low-lying, flood-prone valleys, and – above all – anywhere too close to sea.

If you ask me, even the fact that the CPD felt the need to issue this warning tells us something about a little disconcerting about ourselves. OK, I can understand that foreigners unfamiliar with local weather patterns (or little children, unfamiliar with anything at all) might need a few pointers here and there… even though a storm like that would be considered equally life-threatening anywhere else in the world. But grown adults who have lived here all their lives? Who have seen the destructive force of nature with their own eyes, in the course of several similar (albeit lesser) storms in recent years? Do these people really need to be told to avoid the coast… in a Force 9 gale?

It’s not as though nobody’s ever been swept out to sea by a freak wave before, you know. It happened to an elderly fisherman just last summer… on a windy, but otherwise bright sunny day like any other in mid-July. Just imagine how much likelier it would be in late February, even at the best of climes… let alone with waves crashing inland up to around 200 metres, sweeping away kiosks, gazebos and around half Portomaso’s balconies (more of this in a sec) in the process.

And just imagine, too, how much harder and more dangerous it would be try and rescue people at sea under those circumstances. One solitary rescue mission could easily translate into three, four or more deaths… over and above the selfish twit who ignored all those warnings in the first place.

But that’s not even the half of it. I’m assuming you all watched the video, so you have a rough idea of how many people chose to brave the elements – despite stern warnings from the people who might have to risk their own lives to save them – for no other reason than to scoop up a few dead fish from the roadside. In Xemxija, please note: traditionally, the place where St Paul is believed to have been shipwrecked… after a Grigalata (of truly Biblical proportions, this time) during the same month: February 10, to be precise.

I mean, it’s not just the CPD that tried alerting us to the danger. The Bible did it almost 2,000 years ago, too. And still we don’t listen. Just look how many grown Maltese adults – people who know, or should know, just how dangerous that sort of thing can be – decided to risk their own lives, and those of others, just for the sake of a few stinking dead fish.

This, to me, is the detail that truly clinches our status as an extinction-defying species. For not only did those people come THIS CLOSE to throwing their lives away to catch those fish… but they actually ate them, too. Heck, some people even set up makeshift sales booth to sell their excess catch by the roadside: up to two days after the fish on sale had died.

So for the second time in three days, another flamingly obvious ‘official warning’ had to be issued: this time by the Public Health Department. And I once again, I ask you; did we really need to be ‘officially warned’ not to eat roadkill? Does it have to be the country’s health department to tell us that eating dead fish, picked up from a puddle in the road two days earlier, is just not a very good idea?

I hate to say this, but all those reports of ‘zero fatalities’ my actually be a little premature. My understanding is that food poisoning doesn’t always kick in straight away; and when it does, death usually ensues some time later. So I’d give it a couple more days, and see if any cases of “scombrotoxic fish poisoning” do surface at Mater Dei Hospital, before deciding that the danger has passed.

If not: well, I guess it would confirm that we really are a blessed nation after all. It seems we can defy death, not once, but twice in quick succession… and not face any consequence whatsoever. Where cats have nine lives, some Maltese citizens evidently have at least three… possibly more. Honestly, I can’t offhand think of any other natural, biologically plausible reason for our evolutionary survival all these millennia, despite the overwhelming odds of being wiped out by our own stupidity sooner or later.

And that’s before considering the storm damage to private and public property, which we are told will run into ‘several million euros’. I mentioned earlier that the Portomaso complex in St Julian’s suffered extensive damage: and looking at it on a map… well, it’s not exactly very hard to figure out why, is it? The frontage of all its buildings (not to mention the alignment of its yacht marina) faces directly northeast; and there is nothing, for over a thousand miles in that direction, to impede or obstruct the incoming wind in any way.

As with those multiple, unnecessary warnings from State institutions… this is something we should all have seen coming long ago. Was it so hard for the project designers to predict that they were building their luxury hotel/apartment complex directly in the path of one of Malta’s more destructive, prevailing winds? All they had to do was take a look around 1km eastwards: where the ruins of the Chalet at Ghar id-Dud can be still be discerned. That, too, was a luxurious (but flimsy) structure in its day; built in the wrong place, and using the wrong materials. Is it possible that we learnt nothing at all from that experience; or from all the other coastal developments that routinely get themselves smashed to smithereens by the Gregale?

I guess not. For when you look at how the rest of St Julian’s was developed in the last 50 or so years… you will quickly realise that we haven’t learnt anything at all (note: the same applies to other parts of Malta, but I’m going to stick with St Julian’s as an example).

Parallel to what is today ‘Grenfell Street’ – the stretch of coast road between Neptunes and Spinola Bay – there is the original ‘Main Street’ of old St Julian’s. It is so named because once, not that long ago, it was the equivalent of its usurper today: the last row of urban development, before a natural, subsiding, rocky slope towards the sea.

Old photographs exist to show what St Julian’s looked like in those days; but you can also get an idea from the nearby Sliema seafront, between It-Torri and Surfside. There is a similar natural buffer zone between those seafront buildings, and the sea itself: which explains why they suffered far less damage last weekend, than had they been built almost directly on the water’s edge.

So quite part from being aesthetically more pleasing to the eye, the old St Julian’s townhouses on Main Street were also designed for protection against the elements. They were built on higher ground, maintaining a safe, respectful distance from the shore. And even at a glance, you can see they are made of sterner stuff: their walls are thicker than most townhouses further inland; they have more (or higher) front doorsteps than usual; some are even further encased by front gardens with surrounding walls.

Compare that to the more recent row of houses and apartments that arose to block their view. Not only are those newcomers unwisely sited directly within pummelling distance of massive waves... but many of them also look like they’re built of bloody Lego.

Small wonder the storm damage would run into so many millions… when we’ve spent the last half-century doggedly ignoring all the architectural warnings of preceding generations: building where common sense clearly dictates we should not build – i.e, too close to the sea, or in low-lying, flood-prone valleys – and even then, spending as much money as possible on ‘luxury’ residential and tourism complexes, that are so flimsy they can easily be swept away by a single, violent storm.

Come to think of it: it’s a bit like ‘The Three Little Pigs’… only in reverse. Our wiser and more responsible ancestors built sturdy, ‘Big Bad Wolf’-proof houses out of solid brick; today, their foolish, lazy descendants build their apartment blocks almost literally out of sticks and straw… you know, just to let the Big Bad Wolf know that’s he always welcome to hop over for a good old ‘huffing and puffing’ session, any time he likes.

And yet, amazingly… look at us: we’re all still alive. Meanwhile, those poor, blameless, innocent little fish – who never chose to put their own lives in any danger, still less anyone else’s… they’re all dead. (And eaten, too.)

I mean, seriously, folks… where is the universal justice in that?

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