Monday 27th August, 2007

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Getting serious about disaster preparedness

Do you know what to do in the event of a natural disaster?

According to the UWI/ ANSA McAl Psychological Research Centre Poll reported in the Sunday Guardian, there’s a good chance that roughly just one in ten people can answer that question with any authority in T&T.

While roughly half of the respondents to the poll claimed to be ready for the hurricane season, their responses were based on a personal plan, which includes basic supplies to cover a loss of power and basic utilities.

Responding to the question of whether the country was ready for the full impact of a hurricane, 88 per cent of respondents believed that the nation was not ready at all.

So while it appears that the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) has done a fair job of advising the public on what to buy and to do in preparing their homes for the unwelcome prospect of natural disaster, it has faltered in articulating a national plan for responding to the possibility of natural disaster in T&T.

Indeed, the ODPM hasn’t even bothered to update the website it inherited from the National Emergency Management Agency, the agency formerly responsible for disaster preparedness and emergency response to natural calamity.

The plans and disaster guides of the prior agency remain the default for the ODPM’s operations, suggesting the unwelcome possibility that under the ODPM, disaster planning remains business as usual.

That perception can’t be good news for the executive of the ODPM, who were constituted in the 2005-2006 budget to be a properly-funded replacement for the largely volunteer-driven NEMA.

To match its new responsibilities for planning for national disaster, the ODPM received an increase in its operating budget from NEMA’s anaemic $10,000 to $15 million, with a mandate to become the go-to agency for co-ordinating the country’s response to national disasters.

Now the ODPM may be doing more than NEMA was ever able to, but the childish Community Emergency Plan offered on its Web site under a NEMA logo and the blanketing of the media with colloquial warnings to buy flashlights and nail down roofs can’t be the sum of it.

As T&T entered the hurricane season, clear information about where people in each community should gather for shelter during disaster warnings, how supplies might be accessed within a community should people be cut off from regular roads or access should have been widely-distributed to every citizen of the country, with special emphasis on areas of repeated vulnerability and those served by roads that historically have weathered heavy rainfall poorly.

Instead, we have invented characters played by actors and cartoons available for download instead of a clear, adult plan that intelligent people can follow, step by step, if a landslide blocks their only road or their homes are flooded.

At a Health Sector Table Top Disaster Simulation Exercise on July 23, 2005, participants were appalled at the state of national unreadiness for a natural disaster.

Should such a simulation be run again, would this country have improved its capacity to respond to a natural disaster?

It would be nice to believe that, but the response of the general public in the poll suggests that the ODPM must step up to its mandate to plan and articulate information to the public. Citizens of T&T must understand their role and responsibilities in a natural disaster and how they can work with properly-designated authorities to minimise the aftermath of nature’s whimsy.

The overwhelming sense that prevails in the documents and public presence of the ODPM is one that appears to bank on the best case scenario, one of preparing but not really expecting problems to arise.

It’s an unwelcome result of a national predilection for believing that a supreme deity lives among us and will continue to shelter us from harm. But as every major religion advises, the rewards of faith follow those who act.

©2005-2006 Trinidad Publishing Company Limited

Designed by: Randall Rajkumar-Maharaj · Updated daily by: Nicholas Attai