Sunday 26th June, 2005

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Bring Nema into the modern world

This late in a year, which has been promised a busy season of storms and hurricanes, the last thing the public wishes to hear from experts is that this country is not prepared.

But this is the discouraging message coming from the Health Sector Table Top Disaster Simulation Exercise on Thursday. The state of national unreadiness for the long-predicted onset of hurricane-season activity has been bluntly reported as the outcome of the exercise put on at the office of the National Emergency Management Authority (Nema).

Organised by the Ministry of Health, International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Nema and Pan American Health Organisation (Paho), the event aimed to advance disaster management and preparedness.

UWI Professor Winston Suite appreciates that plain talk about public affairs tends to be received by those in authority as some politically motivated outpouring. When asked, however, he gave his professional opinion as a senior engineer, and as a close observer of what has been learned and implemented since the epoch-making Hurricane Ivan last year.

Disappointingly, the short answer is: precious little.

“I do not want to make a political statement, but I don’t think that we have done very much,” Prof Suite said.

Politics aside, the bitter pill of failure to prepare, even after putting our fingers into the wounds made by Hurricane Ivan, is a reality T&T must now swallow.

Hillside housing in Tobago has already been affected by early seasonal rains. In flood-prone south and central Trinidad areas, residents have voiced lack of confidence in the preparation of anti-deluge defences, the Guardian has reported.

The prospect of a 2005 repeat of the natural-disaster impact of 2004 is an administrative shame and scandal. It is also an imminent terror for people seeing themselves the first victims of floods and landslides.

Prof Suite blamed the long-standing reliance on voluntarism. Noting that “Nema’s concept has been based on voluntary input from organisations,” he said governments have not adequately funded the authority.

“When there is a disaster, you have to get this one to do that and the other one to do that. You have no core staff. Nema has no technical staff”

That Nema, the body to which everyone turns when a natural disaster strikes, is both under-funded and under-professionalised, is a ground for national frustration over lack of administrative progress in yet another area.

“When there is a problem and people calling Nema, they (Nema) tell you straight they have no money or equipment,” Prof Suite said, in a reminder of familiar complaints and experiences.

If Nema isn’t ready, neither are the national health services. After the Thursday exercise, the principal medical officer for environmental health was quoted issuing an equally candid assessment of the health services’ capacity for coping with natural disaster: “We are not adequately prepared and we have to be aware of what we have to do.”

Albeit late, the country has to start somewhere.The start should be with Nema, the body charged with management.

It is about bringing Nema into the modern world as a well-resourced and capable manager of matters, which is why Prof Suite’s ideas deserve serious attention.

He called for a new philosophy to guide construction of a new model for Nema: “We need legislation and with legislation will come a budget and with a budget will come a strategy.”

If, indeed, all of those are missing, as the hour nears for storms and hurricanes, what, apart from faith in the “Trini” nationality of God, can now be relied upon? Maybe T&T can make it easier for God to help those who help themselves.



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