Barbados and its Eastern Caribbean neighbours are breathing a collective sigh of relief today after being spared the ravages of Hurricane Beryl – the second named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season – which looked to threaten the islands over the weekend, but thankfully dissipated before causing any serious damage to an already storm-battered region.
For who could forget last season’s powerful hurricanes and in particular the damage caused to Dominica, Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands and St Maarten by two female systems, namely Maria and Irma.
It was a hard lesson for our already economically depressed region to swallow, but a lesson nonetheless which we dare not ignore, given our very geography and the increasingly visible signs of worsening climate change on our islands.
Therefore, whilst the threat of Beryl may be no more and Chris – the season’s third storm – is currently churning off the Carolinas – we cannot afford to let our guard down.
For one, the season is still quite young, and based on past experiences, it takes little more than a few heavy winds and rains, accompanied by the sort of lightning and thunder strikes that some of us experienced early this morning during the passage of Beryl, to cause us to reel.
In fact, God forbid that our resilience be tested in any major way any time soon, with Barbados already battling with a most severe economic hurricane that has already robbed us of our financial integrity and dignity, and left us standing cap in hand at the door of the International Monetary Fund and other global lending institutions, just hoping and praying that the terms of their monetary support are not too onerous for us to bear.
The question therefore is how to avoid a double whammy, or indeed if we can.
Truth be told there is very little we can do in the face of a category 5, except to prepare for the worst and hope for the best, as our regional disaster planners have effectively been advising us to do.
Of particular concern for us domestically though, is the still too vulnerable state of our housing stock and general infrastructure; the inadequacy of our hurricane shelters and the general lethargy that seems to be associated with our disaster planning office, which still does not have a clear national shutdown policy two years after it became the subject of major controversy.
What this means therefore, is that it is still left to Moontown businessman and former Member of Parliament for St Lucy Denis Kellman to decide whether or not he wants to call out his workers in the midst of a storm, when a shutdown by its very definition implies that all commercial work ceases with only emergency services in operation.
So are we going to wait until it is too late to remedy this situation?
We hope to God not! But with the hurricane season upon us, our disaster planners seem to be as much asleep this year as our Crop Over organizers. Maybe all are still jaded from the impact of the May 24 general election campaign, but really there is no time to waste.
In the face of severe resource constraints, we need to creatively and cost effectively step up our public education to ensure that our citizens not only get out of the rather bad habit of rushing around at the 11th hour looking for batteries and other emergency supplies, but that they are also well au fait with the basic ‘dos and don’ts’ in the event of a disaster.
In an era of instant messaging, there must also be an effective and comprehensive social media campaign, as well as a fully active DEM website and app with all the latest weather information, advice and updates, as opposed to the current hodgepodge way we communicate via GIS and other dying traditional mediums.
With a change in domestic mindset now necessary as well as a greater level of political will to see that it happens, we note that Caribbean Community (CARICOM) leaders at their just ended summit in Montego Bay, undertook a review of the region’s disaster management and recovery programme.
And based on the report which was included in their official communiqué issued at the end of the three-day summit, they said they recognized that the vulnerability of CARICOM member states to national hazards and the effects of climate change remain key challenges to sustainable development and that innovative approaches were required in the era of superstorms.
“Heads of Government also recognized that the building of the community’s resilience involved the interaction of social, economic and environmental policies while enhancing physical infrastructure. They emphasized that Comprehensive Disaster Management remains core to the achievement of a resilient Caribbean Community,” the communiqué said.
Heads also noted that the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) had a key role in facilitating national governments to have full control of the emergency response and early recovery phases of a disaster and that sustainability of the agency was therefore of vital importance, given its mandate and the range of post-disaster support member states require.
They also urged member states to promote and maintain the regional response mechanism coordinated by CDEMA and encouraged the international community to align its support with this mechanism including early recovery, while urging CARICOM to give special consideration to regional sectoral programmes designed to build resilience with the intention of expediting implementation of recommended actions.
In short, we still have a way to go in this region in terms of building resilience to disasters as highlighted by a report out of Dominica of all places this past weekend, that certain churches have been refusing to allow their buildings to be used as shelters.
As prime minister Roosevelt Skerrit said in condemnation of this approach, this is disappointing to say the least.
For if we can’t even depend on the church to provide solace in the midst of the storm and to be our brother’s keeper, then God help us all.