This week a number of agencies, under the leadership of the Department of Emergency Management, have been engaged in simulation exercises to gauge their readiness in the event we are visited by a tsunami.
This type of preparation, though not unfamiliar to Barbados and the region for some years, primarily as a result of increased awareness of the potential dangers posed by undersea volcano Kick ‘Em Jenny, has been heightened at least in the minds of Barbados as a result of two devastating tidal waves in the last decade in Asia.
We commend the DEM and other agencies for the work they have been doing, but we can’t help but wonder at the same time if the emphasis ought not to be placed more on public education at this stage than on agency preparation.
We readily accept that we are not experts in disaster mitigation or management, or even search and rescue, but we believe we are observant enough to know that in such potential disasters it is the man on the street, the householder who will make the difference.
Yes, state agencies and non-governmental organisations with the expertise are critical to ensuring that early warning systems are in place and make sense, and that citizens understand what each type of warning/alert means and therefore how they should react, but in the end only a practical awareness of what they could possibly face will make a difference.
Just take a look, for instance, at the topography of the entire West Coast. Starting in the lower Black Rock area and running all the way to St. Lucy is a coastal ridge that lies varying distances from the shoreline, but in most cases never more than a kilometre inland.
The entire stretch, however, is heavily populated with both commercial and residential structures, as well as high density public institutions such as schools. Do the people who sleep, work, attend school or otherwise frequent these areas daily have any idea how tall a wave it would take to overwhelm the stretch? Do they know how long it would take them, if they were in Holetown, for instance to make it over Lascelles Hill or Trents Hill — and to possible safety?
How about persons who are confined and impacted by restricted mobility, for whatever reasons? Have they been targeted? Should they be targeted? Should their safety be placed squarely on the shoulders of the state?
We understand, again by way of example, that students at St. James Primary or neighbouring Frederick G. Smith Secondary may be drilled to sprint over Trents Hill and out of the way of possible harm, provided warning is given early enough. But what, again by example, about people who work in the vast area covered by Holetown/Sunset Crest residential/commercial district? Is there a single person who goes to work in this area who has ever given a second thought to escape from a tsunami?
Now let’s broaden it by travelling north or south. What about Paynes Bay, Derricks, Fitts Village or Prospect? What about The Garden, Mount Standfast, St. Alban’s, Gibbes, Road View and Speightstown in particular where the ridge is some distance inland from where many work and attend school.
It is this scenario that causes us to question if the nation’s first effort ought not to be in consistent, persistent, prolong, creative and attention-grabbing public education programmes aimed at ensuring that not a single resident who could be impacted by a tsunami remains unaware of his or her options for avoiding death.
So, by all means prepare the agencies and the agency players, but we have a major suspicion that getting upward of 100,000 people away from the coast when a tsunami threatens will depend almost entirely on self-help rather than community effort or agency-based evacuation planning.
We dare to say that with a mighty wave bearing down on us, there will be no policemen at intersections directing traffic, no bus drivers waiting at seaside terminals like Princess Alice and Speightstown to be dispatched to pick-up vulnerable citizens in harm’s way.
In fact, we wonder if the members of a disciplined force like the police, stationed in Holetown or Speightstown, would be so disciplined to be, for instances, thinking about the release and welfare of prisoners in cells at these two stations.
Our point again, is that self-awareness, in our view, will be the key to survival along our coastline and we are not convinced that the current state approaches sufficiently recognise this.