It was one of the founding fathers of the United States, the scientist and inventor Benjamin Franklin who said honesty is the best policy.
Franklin would have been proud of Programme Officer at the Department of Emergency Management (DEM) Danielle Skeete for the honesty with which she spoke about Tuesday’s heavy rains that brought the country to a virtually halt and left behind quite some damage – particularly to roads, the cost of which is yet unknown.
Ms Skeete’s emollient approach was quite pleasing; soothing, even.
This notwithstanding, there was something troubling about the revelation that she made on Tuesday evening, that the severity of the weather system had taken emergency management officials by surprise.
“We realize it was moving down the island chain. We saw the effects in Dominica and St Vincent but we did not anticipate that it would hit us for the entire day, nor did we foresee the amount of rain which fell,” she said.
Having observed the onslaught on St Vincent and the Grenadines, in particular, it is worrying that the DEM seemed so unprepared for what happened here.
Fortunately there was no loss of life and the physical damage was limited to roads and some homes, while the organizers of the 50th anniversary celebrations were forced to reschedule events planned for the last two days of the celebrations.
But what if it had been worse? How was the department going explain what appears at the moment to have been falling asleep at the wheel?
Part of the DEM’s mission is to “promote and institutionalize the practice of appropriate preventative and mitigation measure for all possible hazards”, and to “promote the development and maintenance of effective warning, response and recovery plans for all sectors of the society”. This, we would like to believe, involves being thoroughly prepared and not being taken by surprise when weather systems like the one that struck on Tuesday affect Barbados. For, due to the fickle nature of humans, we can easily lose confidence in an organization which needs our trust.
This was not an almighty challenge, yet, if, like Ms Skeete, we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that the DEM failed us in that instance and it owes us, not just an explanation, but what it intends to do to ensure it is not caught by surprise again.
The big question is, why? Why was it unaware that the system would have lasted as long as it did? Why did it not expect this much rain? Things might very well have been out of the department’s hands. We need to know, to be reassured, to be made to feel comfortable that parents are given little notice to pick their children up from school early because the country is flooding. It must explain it all to us, talk us through it so we can all understand.
Which brings us to the other issue – that of the lack of proper drainage, for this is a major contributor to flooding here.
In July 2012, after one of the many floods to have affected Barbados, Director of the Drainage Division Keith Barrow expressed concern that our drainage system was designed for a once-in-25-years storm, or eight inches of rain within a 24-hour period.
We received about four to six inches on Tuesday, according to the Met Office, and see what happened. What if it had been eight inches, or ten?
The fact is, the system is old and tired and the authorities must seriously consider improving it, cost notwithstanding. When the lives and well-being of citizens are at stake, cost ought not be the primary concern.
By the way, what has happened to the Drainage Unit, which then Deputy Prime Minister Freundel Stuart – now the country’s political leader – had given two thumbs up for its performance back in October 2010 after another such storm?
“I think the Drainage Unit has performed creditably ever since it has been established. I think generally speaking Barbadians have seen an improvement in the drainage situation but we must not forget that we still live in a Barbados where . . . if there are unusually high levels of rainfall people do not expect it to flood,” Stuart said at the time.
“You cannot always know what the shortcomings of a unit like the Drainage Unit are until you have unusually high levels of rainfall such as we are having now,” he added.
We have since had sufficient rainfall since, even amidst the drought, to know what the shortcomings are. We also know the impact that cuts by the increasingly niggardly Stuart administration had on the unit.
Now that we know, will the unit be fixed, or will it be allowed to fit seamlessly into the inadequate and ineffective drainage system?
It would be a classical tragedy if we allowed things to go down the drain – figuratively speaking, since many are clogged in reality. We ought not allow ourselves to look back years from now and ask, what happened? What were we thinking back then? What was the plan?
Now is the time to be honest with ourselves and act before we are faced with a major disaster that could be avoided.