Are we ready yet?

Chantal was here and now it is gone! Chantal’s low key arrival and departure, once more disappointed the thrill seekers and the foolhardy, as many were looking forward to the thrill of extreme wind speeds and rough seas that accompany events of this type.

Thrill seekers, completely oblivious to the true dangers from extreme wind speeds and storm surging sea water still live in a world of fantasy.

Many have hoped that the day would come when a tropical storm watch would highlight the levels of preparedness and readiness accomplished by a community; and that a tropical storm warning would highlight the efficient response capabilities of a government.

Many have hoped that in times of national emergencies, that the professionalism of Government’s emergency management mechanism would inspire a scholarly response and not veiled criticism from some quarters. But alas, once more we see that these are just hopes, and that no matter what is accomplished by Government or by the conscientious in a community, there will always be criticism.

The issue here is that while in the views of many, the criticism received is warranted and justified; there is still reason to credit the Government with their efforts at preparing the country for what could have been a major impact from a storm system that could have easily strengthened into one.

Let us take a closer look at the positives and the negatives from Chantal’s arrival. First, there was a clear early public warning and sharing of information from the Government/Department of Emergency Management. All Category I Emergency Shelters were opened, staffed and prepared for evacuees. The DEOs were activated and their members were deployed according to their plans.

The primary agencies and departments activated their plans; and the hotel sector, according to their representatives, had the Tourism Response Plan activated to meet the needs of the visitors who chose not to leave. The public transportation system provided the necessary support to facilitate commuters to go their homes.

The business community closed operations allowing eployees to be with their families; and the utility companies activated their protective plans and notified the public accordingly. State television once more took the initiative and presented live broadcasts of current events, supported by the technical data provided by the DEM.

However, as usual with live television, the viewing public tend to be more interested in the drama of destruction rather the preventative actions and discussions of the studio guests and experts. Based on what has been observed there is clear justification for giving kudos to the Government for its response to Chantal.

However, the criticism still must be viewed. First there was what the general public assumed was the unnecessary long wait before the “all clear” was issued by Government. The calls for the lifting of the order to remain indoors was based on a number of factors.

The system, even though there appeared to be no physical effect from its presence, was still over Barbados as the sun rose, therefore it was incumbent upon the authorities to be cautious. The fact that it was relatively calm outside, including very little rough seas along some parts of the shore line, did not necessarily mean that it was safe to start swimming. Thus the order to remain indoors, justifiably, according to the authorities, continued.

Additionally, because there appeared to be no extreme winds, the majority of people were of the opinion that the system had passed, and therefore they could resume normal activities. Again, a very wrong assumption. In an active tropical storm system, it does not take a lot for an uprooted tree to become a lethal missile.

Neither does it take a lot wind force for a power line to snap and become extremely dangerous, therefore venturing out without advice may be the last time you venture outside.

In this case the decision to keep the preventive order in force was, in the opinion of the authorities, fully justified.

Criticism was also heard from the disabled community, who once more stated in an early morning news report that the DEOs did not possess the relevant information necessary to support the needs of the disabled during this type of national emergency. One spokes-person suggested that this lack of information and administrative procedures would severely impact any disabled person who expected to receive help from the DEOs.

In this regard, I am on record as being supportive of this claim. In fact, not only this is claim true for national emergencies, but it is also evident in multi-storey building response and transport systems currently in place for the disabled community. Advocates have also been quoted as stating that there is also a need for an improvement in the area of information technology. It has been suggested, that there is a great disparity in the delivery of emergency information for the hearing and visually impaired.

Not all of the hearing and visually impaired persons have access to some of the modern information technology marvels currently available on the open market. The question here is: “Who is going to bear the costs for delivery that service to those who cannot afford it?”

Let us revisit the complaints of being kept inside unnecessarily. It has been suggested that the government did not need to wait on the Miami-based National Weather Service to determine whether it was safe for Barbadian public to resume normal activities. Some members of the annoyed public wanted to know why the DEM could not have deployed some assessment teams to key areas of the island, that could have advised them as to the current weather conditions in place; and after consultation with the Barbados weather service based on the collected field information, issued a limited movement advisory, that would have allowed for a smoother transition back to normalcy. Considering that even though there was an order in place, people and traffic continued to increase as the morning progressed. In fact,

ZR vans and some newspaper vendors were observed doing business around the City and in certain areas of the island. These activities further fuelled criticism that the delay in lifting the order was “foolish and unnecessary”. The Attorney General in his address noted that in his opinion the Chantal response was much better the Tomas response; and even though the response was better, there would still be complainers. How right he was.

While I am in full agreement that the initial response to Chantal was much more efficient, timely, and better coordinated than the Tomas response, Barbados is still not ready for post impact response and recovery. Adequately advising the public of an impending tropical storm does not necessarily mean that an efficient system of response and recovery exists; and that all of the required systems to provide prompt long term recovery operation are in place. It is the opinion of the majority of persons questioned on the Chantal response, that there needs to be more tangible evidence of such a comprehensive system exists. The criticism is not going away, and the complaints are not going to diminish until critics are satisfied that tangible proof of improvement can be seen.

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