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Prepared for what?

Last week in another section of the media the Director of Emergency Management was reported as saying that Barbados was not ready for a disaster — that the country had not learned anything from the passing of Tropical Storm Tomas.

Furthermore, the director was of the opinion that the damages caused by Tomas to the housing stock should be a warning to all as to how weak the housing was in the Barbados. The director suggested that after 20 years that the Government was still not ready to respond too, or prepared for, any catastrophic disaster scenario affecting the island. However, whether or not any responsibility can be attributed to anyone for where the current levels of readiness is at this moment is irrelevant, as we are currently in another hurricane season with tropical storms “Blame” and “Point Fingers” just a few miles off shore gathering strength.

In 1989 and 1995, Hurricanes Hugo and Marilyn struck the US Virgin Islands leaving them battered; a dusk to dawn curfew implemented on the island of St. Croix for a week; military and federal law enforcement personnel stationed on all three islands; hundreds homeless, and many more relocating to the US mainland vowing never to return.

In 2004, Hurricane Ivan did the same thing to Grenada; and in 2005, Hurricane Katrina embarrassed the United States, leaving hundreds dead and thousands homeless across three states. Katrina’s impact caused a mayor to lose an election and the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to look elsewhere for a job.

In 2010, an earthquake left Haiti in ruins and a cholera epidemic killing thousands. Another earthquake, accompanied by a massive tsunami the following year, 2011, brought one of the world’s economic giants to its knees, with the Prime Minister claiming that the devastation was similar to World War II.

Each year, church services are held at the beginning of the hurricane season with the congregation once more praying that the country will again be spared the devastation of its neighbours. Each year, the media on its own accord, presents preparedness supplements and radio and television programmes highlighting the needs to be prepared.

But how many readers, listeners, and viewers actually heed the warnings carried in these programmes? Does anyone really care about being prepared? Does the Government convene its department heads and demand that the machinery of government be made ready and its personnel placed on standby for the duration of the season?

In my opinion, not many heed the warnings carried in the media, and while Government may convene its department heads to discuss being prepared, the state of readiness goes unchanged, and its personnel are only placed on standby when a system appears on the horizon. No one really cares about being prepared until the threat forces the majority into panic mode, and a purchasing scramble occurs in the supermarkets and lumber companies. It would appear that unless ones’ personal safety or the country’s infrastructure is threatened, no one prepares for an emergency.

Government continues to convene what should really be described as “discussion groups” on the subject, as no tangible evidence is ever seen from these meetings of department heads. The roads and communities still remain subject to flooding, Government’s information system comprised of thousands of paper documents still remains vulnerable to fires, flooding, and hurricanes.

Homeowners continue life as usual, concerned with making mortgage and car payments, food and utility bills, and more importantly, the next Crop-Over Festival. Societies spend millions on entertainment each year, but only thousands on ensuring that their homes and businesses will survive the next fire, flood, or tropical storm.

Millions of dollars are spent on promoting tourism and other income generating activities across the Caribbean each year, and rightly so. However, the Government’s critical emergency management infrastructure remains unchanged; personnel demands for training and equipment continue to either receive token response in national budgets, or in some cases ignored once more for another year. Each year, Government personnel in almost every Caribbean country, whose management style does not contribute to either improving employee morale, or productivity, continue to function in decision-making positions while the state of its preparedness remains in suspended animation.

The results of this inaction is dramatically seen when a hazard causes a disaster declaration, and the population cries out for answers as to why everything fell apart. The responses to these questions are rhetorical and supported by the “Ostrich Syndrome”.

However, ignoring the public’s demand for an efficient national emergency management system prior to a disaster scenario by attributing the blame for its subsequent failure to an inefficient manager, does not alleviate the pain and suffering experienced by its people afterwards. The dead remain dead; the injured continue to feel physical pain, and the homeless continue to forage for shelter, while the political directorate tours the impact sites accompanied by the media. In the end, unlike the former FEMA director, management remains unchanged and systems continue to go administratively “downhill” like a car without brakes.

Barbados, like many of its Caribbean neighbours, is not prepared. Countries like Haiti serve as a dramatic reminder of what can happen when disasters occur. It demonstrates the effects of “lip service” to the managerial needs of a critical national responsibility. It definitively presents what can happen when an inefficient system attempts to either respond to, or recover from the catastrophic impact of a hazard; and placing the blame at the feet of its managers, whether justified or not, does not assist in resolving the situation now placed at its doorstep.

The media recently covered, and again this is only my opinion, the re-launching of the National Emergency Advisory Council. There was much pomp and ceremony at the convening of this council. However, as far as I am aware, this country always had a National Emergency Advisory Council, so why was there a need for its re-launching?

Was it because that it had been dormant for so long, that the only way to “restart its engine” was to “jump start” its “batteries”? Is this sarcasm? Yes. There seems to be a growing trend in this country of improving or upgrading an inefficient system by either “reinventing the wheel”, painting the building, but not treating or replacing the contaminated air conditioning system; or expanding the business but providing no safety and health training to its personnel in the new procedures. In the end, the result is the delivery of a poor quality product for the consumer.

We must all accept responsibility of the state of preparedness in Barbados. Blame for the country’s clearly evident emergency management procedural inadequacies must be equally distributed, between the past and present political directorate, as well as its ministries and department heads.

Pointing fingers at only the Director of Emergency Management will not fix a problem which has been created by more than one person.

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