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Joaquin –– a second look . . .

EMERGENCY911 block-1On September 27, the first advisory on Tropical Depression 11 was issued by the National Hurricane Centre in Miami, and on October 7, the 42nd advisory was issued on a system that had passed Bermuda after pounding the Bahamas for almost three days. Hurricane Joaquin, which at one time had reached Category 4, is responsible for the sinking of the cargo ship El Faro with 33 crew on board. There have been no survivors.

In the case of El Faro, the US Coast Guard suspended the search for possible survivors from the ship. The Coast Guard, Navy, Air Force, Air National Guard and tugboat crews had searched more than 183,000 square nautical miles off the Bahamian coast in a joint effort to locate any surviving crew.

A major investigation is being carried out as to why the vessel had apparently sailed directly into the path of the Category 4 hurricane, and whether there may have been mechanical problems that prevented the ship from avoiding the hurricane. In the interim, the US Navy has now undertaken the arduous task of locating the vessel and initiating proceedings to hopefully recover the bodies of the crew.

Hurricane Joaquin has left hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to the Bahamas in its wake; has sunk a 790-foot cargo ship, claiming the lives of its 33 crew; and has also become the source of the “finger-pointing syndrome”. It is now considered as inevitable, regardless of which country experiences the effects of a hazard, that with every disaster situation there will be accusations levelled at the authorities.

Groups or individuals within an affected community who are dissatisfied with quality of response seen and service received before, during and after the fact express that dissatisfaction through any available forum, which in most cases is
the news media.

The public’s sentiments are not always complimentary of the authorities, and, depending on the extent of the resulting devastation, the “finger-pointing” will emerge in the form of very provocative, if not embarrassing, questions such as “What went wrong?”, “Why was there not enough warning from the authorities regarding the potential power of the system?”, “Where was it going?”, “What could have been done differently to prepare the country?”, “Who is to blame for the shortcomings identified?”.

In the case of Joaquin, questions raised by residents in the Bahamas suggest that there may have been some delay in public notification about the system, activation of emergency shelters, not enough support from the media, and political missteps by some senior government officials. The issue here is similar to other countries which have experienced near catastrophic conditions following the impact of a natural hazard. Reviews of the administrative and operational response to disaster situations in most cases usually reveal flaws in the administration, warning and response, recovery, and infrastructural restoration of the affected communities.

Let us look at some of the questions raised by residents in the Bahamas: what went wrong? Unless definitive answers are received, it will be very difficult to determine what exactly did. What can be accepted is that according to persons living in the most affected areas, there are complaints being raised that not enough ongoing information was available to them, from the time the system had been identified as a tropical depression, and distance from the Bahamas determined
as warranting close attention.

Comments raised in other corners of the community also suggest that even though the system had been projected to move away from the Bahamas, its actual positioning suggested different, and that planners should have considered preparing for its arrival long before it’s centre had been plotted.

The suggestion by critics is that preparation should have been initiated for the arrival of the leading edge and not wait until its centre had been determined by the weather service. In this case, while waiting on the weather service for an exact forecast, it is still incumbent upon local authorities to begin response preparations.

Herein lies the quandary: should a country await definitive information, or should preparations be initiated regardless of definitive information? The obvious answer to such a question is yes.

The opinion held by a resident is that waiting until definitive information is received only reduces the actual time needed to alert and prepare an entire community to the possible arrival of the event. In other words, it is better
to warn and prepare, rather than wait just expecting it not to arrive.

Why was there not enough warning from the authorities regarding the potential power of the system? According to the Bahamas officials, adequate alert and warning were done. It was also reported by the media that the government had done all it could to prepare for what was eventually accepted as a very fast-developing hurricane.

Where was it going? Again, new reports stated that, based on the hurricane’s unpredictable movement, no clear estimates could be given on its true path. Complaining residents have stated that this was irrelevant, as its close proximity should have been enough to initiate a state-wide alert and warning as to a high possibility that Joaquin would in fact impact the Bahamas.

Hurricane Katrina’s arrival in New Orleans also created similar scenarios, resulting in mass administrative problems and late activation of the city’s alert, warning and evacuation plans. Ironically, similar complaints were also levelled at the Barbados DEM for Tropical Storm Tomas in 2010.

What could have been done differently to prepare the country and who is to blame for the shortcomings identified? Based on information and comments from various sources, Bahamian residents are of the opinion that there was enough information available leading up to the arrival of the 34-knot winds of Joaquin; that an adequate response could have been completed.

The system had been determined as a developing one at least six days before it reached the country, and during the period before its arrival, information was presented on more than one occasion that Joaquin had the potential to rapidly develop in to a tropical storm or a hurricane; that its proximity to the Bahamas would mean this would be a short-notice arrival event.

The criticisms and finger-pointing will eventually end, and life will once again proceed as the country implements its recovery and infrastructural restoration plans. However, the question remains: did the country have time?

In the opinion of Bahamian critics, the answer is yes. Officials kept on tracking and following its progress and development, but for reasons which have not yet been answered to the satisfaction of those affected by the system,
no one decided to take heed of the hints presented.

The presumption, therefore in this case, is that everyone saw it coming, but did not think that it was time to duck.


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