Storm force winds, raging fires and rising floodwaters were no match for Judy Thomas, during the 26 years she stood at the helm of Barbados’ national emergency response system. In fact, not even a fall received during the 2007 earth tremor felt across the island could keep the then director of the Department of Emergency Management (DEM) off her feet.
Thomas recalls the many fires, floods, storms, the possible threats and damage left by systems such as Hurricanes David, Allan, Hugo and Gilbert, and even the volcanic eruption in Montserrat.
But, it was the five lives lost in the Arch Cot tragedy in August, 2007, and those lost at Joe’s River, St Joseph, in July of that same year, that will forever be etched in the mind of the now retired director.
She recalls the long hours involved in the Arch Cot tragedy, which saw an Incident Command System being activated 24 hours a day for a full week, while the Joe’s River tragedy for her was simply just “gruesome”.
But, after years of adrenaline pumping to activate Barbados’ national emergency systems in the face of disaster or crisis, Thomas, who retired officially on May 1 after 49 years in the Public Service, is more than ready to activate her retirement and embrace all that it brings.
Topping her list is the ability to simply just relax after performing what was often described as “a man’s job”, a role she played while balancing caring for her young son.
“I am a Thomas-born in Mount Standfast. We are all in one cluster and I had a family and an extended family. I knew when I left, someone would pick up my son; so that was never a problem,” she said, explaining how she juggled caring for her son and being constantly on call.
But, don’t expect her to be any less busy than she was when she carried the mantle for this island’s safety and security during times of disaster.
In fact, she already has a packed itinerary for her retirement –– from caring for her mum and aunt; spending time with her granddaughter and other new additions to the family; sewing; sorting out her home; learning French and how to play the piano; and returning to her first love, this time at a professional level, painting.
Service to her community is also high on the agenda for the retiree, who already has her eyes on the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides movements to see where she can be of help. She also has plans to assist the District Emergency Organization in her area to get it “up and running”.
Surrounded by awards obtained over the years, walls decorated by paintings she created, and pictures of family members, Thomas reflected on her journey from a clerk in the Registry at Services Commission in 1966, to an information officer at the Barbados Government Information Service (BGIS), to supervisor of the then Central Emergency Relief Organization (CERO), and then director of the DEM.
As a clerk, Thomas recalled being responsible for all the records in the Civil Service. However, after accepting a suggestion to learn more about the emerging field of public relations, she pursued a degree in the area in 1972. That eventually earned her a position at the BGIS upon her return in 1975.
“I was instrumental in the concept of introducing public relations officers attached to ministries . . . . The concept was eventually understood and we were then assigned to departments,” she said, noting she also had a vision to transform the BGIS into a multimedia agency for information management.
However, life threw her a curve before she could achieve this vision, when she was reassigned to CERO in 1983.
But as the saying goes, “when life hands you lemons, make lemonade”.
“It was a corporate organization where you could use all the skills that you had in public relations and public education to zero in on a discipline. It fitted in well with the concept that I would have had in that I would have been working for the disaster management profession using the multimedia approach I had for GIS; [so] I started with that,” she explained.
And so, in her new role, Thomas set out to create a greater awareness of hurricane hazards in Barbados and around the region.
The first time she was “called out” was to one of the “terrific” Speightstown floods in 1983, a call that makes her laugh even to this day. The joke was she never actually went to the area!
“I was not sent because I was female and I would be going out in rain and mud. I never took that to be a good reason because it didn’t make sense. I never went to Speightstown but I worked in the coordination of the response,” she recalled with a smile.
Reflecting on her years of service, particularly those spent at the DEM, the retired director admitted that she did not know how she coped. Her only conclusion: “God had my back. He pushed me from behind; he pulled me up. I saw divine facilitation in all I had to do.”
As Barbados prepares for the start of the 2015 Atlantic hurricane season, former director of the Department of Emergency Management (DEM), Judy Thomas, has issued her final official warning –– the responsibility is yours!
“The safety and well-being of yourself and your family is your responsibility. It is a responsibility that you cannot push on someone else,” she emphasized.
As she hangs up her hat after 26 years at the DEM, the icon on the emergency landscape still has one concern: the attitude of citizens towards possible hazards or disasters.
However, she has given the assurance that Government is working to implement systems to better inform the public about such threats and how best to manage them.
Thomas leaves behind a legacy after starting the process of transitioning the mindsets of residents from simply responding to disasters, such as storms and hurricanes, to one where they now seek to reduce disaster risk and embrace comprehensive disaster management.
On taking up her posting at the Central Emergency Relief Organization (CERO) in 1983, Thomas ensured that she learnt and read all that she could on the job, earning herself a National Development Scholarship and completing a degree in disaster management.
That qualification assisted her greatly as CERO transitioned into the DEM, and a greater focus was placed on disaster risk reduction, in keeping with new global trends and the International Decade For Disaster Risk Reduction, which started in 1990.
Thomas also played a key role in the setting up of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Relief Agency, now the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, and later went on to write one of the first concept papers for the island on comprehensive disaster management.
But, that was just the beginning of her influence in the emerging field.
“The whole transition from CERO to DEM came at a time when the world was tired of providing relief and the United Nations brought in the concept of disaster risk reduction,” she recalled.
However, Thomas lamented that there were still gaps in the move towards comprehensive disaster management.
She explained that there was still a “wait for something to happen to respond” attitude, and even a lacklustre approach to calling in the army should something happen.
The retired director added that while she understood she was running a national emergency management system, and not simply coordinating another Government department, some did not see it in that way.
Noting that Barbados was seen as a leader in disaster management in the Caribbean, Thomas pointed out that she had “a hell of a responsibility to ensure that Barbados maintained its standing in disaster management in the region for the quality of work that they put in”, sometimes with a lack of resources.
Looking back, Thomas said she was pleased to see that much progress had been made over the years, especially as the field of disaster management offered a wide scope for persons to enter various professions.
“But there is still a need to place it in the Civil Service architecture,” she maintained.
Now that her tenure has come to an end, is there anything Judy Thomas would change if given the chance?
“I would do it all over again!” she said emphatically, but acknowledged that she would require more help and support.
The former director thanked those who took an interest in helping her along her journey, noting that she was happy to work for the people of Barbados.
Acting DEM director Kerry Hinds will now carry the mantle as the country prepares for this hurricane season.
“Ms Hinds understands the concept that she is not running a disaster office but a national system,” Thomas said.
She also assured the country that the DEM’s staff was highly professional and highly trained, with skills that she did not even have on entering the civil service.
“They are committed to the well-being of the people in Barbados,” she affirmed.