Lessons learnt?

A confirmed 35 deaths, 8,000 homes destroyed, and 20,000 people left homeless.

Unless you are keen student of Barbadian history, have an elderly relative who related their first hand experience, or are otherwise enlightened, these statistics might mean very little to you.

In fact, they might appear foreign to the point that you think to a fearsome natural disaster internationally. But, believe it or not, that was the reality of Barbados on September 22, 1955 when a devastating Hurricane Janet struck the island.

Now 57 years later on the anniversary of the natural disaster, the perennial questions have resurfaced: Have we learnt the lessons from Hurricane Janet? Are we better prepared for such disasters? Were a similar weather system to strike in 2012 how would we fare?

The answers to at least the first two questions are easy, since any response would have to be in the affirmative.

Answering the third question is not so obvious, considering the $37 million in damage Tropical Storm Tomas inflicted on 1,000 homes on October 30 two years ago.

Let’s start with a few of the positives. Barbados has a functioning, though not perfect, Department of Emergency Management, and has had a storm relief agency of some type since the 1940s.

This is complimented by a network of agencies, which have developed over time, and contribute to the overall coordination of incident preparedness and responses.

It is also without question that the country’s housing stock has improved compared to when an unwelcome Hurricane Janet did her damage.

Then there is widespread available of affordable home insurance, enabling those with ability to pay an opportunity to recover their losses.

This of course is not an exhaustive list, as is the case with those things that can be considered negative. If the response to Tomas is any gauge, however, as well as other events, we still have some way to go when it comes to hurricane preparedness. As a country surrounded by water, the fact that the main electricity plant, and key drivers of economic activity, the hotel sector, is located largely on the coast rightly are a source of concern. Questions remain about the absence of certain mandatory building standards, and the fact Tomas could damage 1,000 houses in modern day Barbados suggests our building stock is still not adequate. And that has nothing to do with the fact that even the best designed and built hurricane resistant property would find it hard to withstand mother nature’s fury. Also of concern is the ironic situation, made public recently in both Houses of Parliament that not one cent of more than $30 million deposited in a national Catastrophe Fund could be used because of legislative inadequacy. By no stretch of the imagination is 2012 Barbados as badly off infrastructure and financial resource wise as it was when Hurricane Janet came calling nearly six decades ago. That said, the mantra often repeated at this time of year, that “God is a Bajan”, is not an adequate insurance policy. We all need to take this business of hurricane preparedness, and disaster preparedness generally, much more seriously. Last weekend’s anniversary of the most deadly storm to affect Barbados in recent memory is a timely reminder of what we need to do.

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