If it had been Bim

Once more the island of Barbados has been spared the wrath of a hurricane. However, the same cannot be said for Jamaica, Cuba, the Bahamas, and 21 states of the US. Category One Hurricane Sandy left a trail of death and destruction in the Caribbean, claiming 58 lives as it turned its attention to the eastern United States.

According to American officials, approximately 50 million people were affected by Sandy as it made landfall. US meteorologists have also said that it became a “superstorm” since it merged with a winter storm heading across the country towards the east coast. Reports from the US have also said that the death toll was 16, including three children.

Five deaths in New York, three each in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, two in Connecticut, and one each in Maryland, North Carolina and West Virginia, with authorities hoping that the death toll will not increase any more.

On Monday, Michigan authorities were estimating that 50 mph wind gusts could cause power outages throughout the state and ultimately affect some of its 2.1 million customers. However, utility companies in 11 states and the District of Columbia were already reporting that more than 2.2 million customers were without power. The National Hurricane Centre reported Storm surge heights of 12.4 feet had been recorded at Kings Point, New York, and 7.5 feet in Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The New York metropolitan area got the worst of it. A massive fire destroyed almost 100 homes in a flooded neighborhood near the Atlantic Ocean in the New York City borough of Queens.

An explosion at a substation knocked out power to customers in Manhattan. Power outages in New Jersey and New York had already affected a combined total of 885,967 people; which is almost three times the population of Barbados.

Once more Barbados has been spared this devastation. However, as countries impacted by Sandy begin the long arduous task of recovery and rebuilding, I am once more asking: Will we as a people use these opportunities of near misses to improve our levels of preparedness? Will we finally begin to plan and implement the securing of our homes and businesses? Or will we once more squander these opportunities as we focus on other priorities considered more important and urgent than preparedness?

The statistical evidence of a hurricane does not tell the intimate details of what happens to victims left behind. It does not delineate the impact left on the survivors who will now mourn the loss of relatives and friends. It does not present the financial burden that faces a government as it begins the task of rebuilding a country’s infrastructure. What it does state, is that like any other hazard, inefficient planning on the part of both government and citizens alike, will result in what many emergency management specialists and engineers will describe as avoidable losses and infrastructural damages.

A former St. George DEO chairman said in a conversation with me on the weekend, that he was sadden by the fact that based on his observations, only a handful of the 30 District Emergency Organisations could be described as functioning according to their mandate and that residents only considered the DEO as important when their personal space and weekend entertainment was in jeopardy.

He added that if Tropical Storm Sandy had in fact impacted Barbados, it would have found a sporadically prepared nation. The former chairman, a well-respected member of the community, could not help but lament on how the concept of community preparedness was now being lost on deaf ears.

He argued that national preparedness was being pushed to the bottom of the country’s agenda, with some departments and ministries still relying on plans that needed testing and in some cases completely in need of redesign. He commented also on the fact that the much talked about quality of housing in Barbados was one that seemed to only focus on the houses of the poor but downplayed the other sections or classes of the society.

He said that there were properties in places like Rowans, the Mount, Ruby, Heddings, Rices, Mullins, Sunset Crest, Regency Park, Rendezvous Gardens, Fort George and Atlantic Shores, that would all fail due to the unfortunate belief that they would withstand any impact. He said that many of these properties all needed to be inspected and strengthened and that the owners were living in a fantasy world.

I asked an engineer and a private contractor about Barbados’ level of structural preparedness, and they both laid out a litany of areas, which in their opinion needed immediate attention. They said that with the current economy as it was that some of these areas would not receive the attention they needed.

They said many families could not and would not spend the money necessary to improve the physical infrastructure of homes, even though some of the improvements were not as expensive as thought. Some properties were still sitting in flood plains and that without mitigation that they would continue to be inundated each time there was heavy rain. They added that some families spent more on Crop-Over stalls than on their own homes.

With regard to some Government properties, they said that some of the older buildings lacked the improvements necessary to ride out a Category Two or Three hurricane. They had observed that during the passing of Ernesto and Isaac, which had very little effect on the island, scarcely any protective activities were implemented for some properties. In their opinion, the overall public and private sector attitude was to vacate the building, lock it down, and return the next day to survey the damage.

They added that shuttering of Government and private sector buildings now seemed to be a thing of the past, and a false reliance was being made on the use of impact resistant materials, but they warned that some of the most modern properties in cities along the US Gulf Coast had been devastated from hurricanes striking those areas. They said that because a building was primarily a concrete structure did not make it invulnerable to the impact of a system.

Once more Barbados is spared the wrath of a hurricane,unlike the US East Coast with Sandy, where New York University’s Tisch Hospital was forced to evacuate 200 patients, including 20 babies from the neonatal intensive care unit, who were on battery-powered respirators, after its backup generator failed. The patients had to be carried down staircases to more than 80 ambulances waiting to take them to other hospitals.

Here is an interesting scenario; what if the same thing had occurred in Barbados, requiring a massive evacuation of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, where would the patients go? What other facilities would be available for such an exercise? While a school may have the physical area with lots of buildings to support relocation, the infrastructure required to support a relocated general hospital does not exist in a school setting. Furthermore, the only in-house facilities capable of even offering any level of medical care and housing of patients, are all located in flood zones and in two cases, less than 1,800 feet from the shoreline.

And in case you are questioning the 1,800 foot estimate, an evacuation planning group in 2006 measured the actual length. Something to think about.

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