‘Palpitating’ honour

Ex disaster chief caught off-guard

Call it the irony of ironies, but in the midst of last week’s heavy downpour that resulted in flooding across the country, came the equally unexpected, but more welcomed news of a national honour for one of Barbados and the Caribbean’s foremost advocates for comprehensive disaster planning.

In fact, as Barbadians were running for cover, Jeremy Collymore’s heart was “palpitating”, but not because of the intense rain event.

As the former regional “flag bearer” for disaster management, Collymore understands only too well what it takes to ride out a storm. However, it was being accorded a Barbados Service Star “for his outstanding contribution and leadership in disaster management at the national, regional and global levels” that mostly caught the former Executive Director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) off guard.

“It is very humbling I must say, and for me, as a flag bearer for disaster management, I really see it as a recognition of a new discipline that has significant implications for public policy and sustainable development,” Collymore told Barbados TODAY in an interview earlier this afternoon, in which he generously shared his latest honour with his former regional colleagues and international partners.

As important as disaster management may be in an era of rapidly growing climate change with obvious consequences, it can also be a thankless job.

Therefore, it has been heartwarming for Collymore to walk the streets of his community and hear persons respond to his national honour by saying, “Collymore, you really deserve it!”

In graciously accepting the Barbados Service Star, the former CDEMA head, who was recently designated an honorary research fellow at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, where he teaches a course in Crisis Risk and Disaster Management, took a moment to recognize the numerous “warriors out there who are struggling at the national level to get this issue appropriately reflected in government thinking and practise”.

In fact, he strongly urged them to “keep fighting”, since the door had now opened up for disaster managers to get public recognition of such work.

Collymore, who grew up in the north of the island without the luxury of streetlights or pipe water running into his home, also expressed gratitude to his early mentors Franklyn McDonald, Sir Neville Nicholls and Jean Holder, who  gave him wise counsel when he entered the field.

“I was very young at the time and I always say to people, ‘youth is not an issue, it is that sometimes listening to elders is just as important because there are some things you could never read and you could never imagine and you can always blend guidance with your goals,’” he said.

Collymore, who now serves as a regional disaster risk management consultant, having worked in several Caribbean countries, is pleased that Barbados has made tremendous progress over the years.

However, he told Barbados TODAY he was concerned that the current push for change on the island was not being matched by the adjustments in the systems and processes.

“We are having contentions that may not be required if we recognize that the problems may not be personal and if we invested more in understanding the transitional requirements and the collective efforts to realize this transition for the sustained Barbados,” he said.

Interestingly, his national honour came in the midst of the traditional hurricane season, while Barbados and neighbouring St Vincent battled with unmerciful rains.

But while some may chalk this up as mere coincidence, Collymore, who was born in 1955 around the time of Hurricane Janet and later attended the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies in Jamaica in 1979 when Hurricanes David and Frederick struck, attaches greater personal significance to those events.

“This idea of risk hazards and my life seem to be very much intertwined . . . so these moments maybe were portentous in relation to what my interest was,” he said.

A geographer by training, Collymore has a deep appreciation of the challenges between man and his environment.

Therefore, he warned that the world was now more exposed than it has ever been in terms of its people, infrastructure and assets, which also explains why the Caribbean has recently been faced with more loses on account of rising climate change.

“We are seeing a lot of losses from what we consider to be small events and in the case of St Vincent and the Grenadines it is particularly unique that for the last five years around December we lose about five per cent of GDP,” he said.

He also pointed out that Barbados and other Caribbean territories have been experiencing “concentrated rainfall over short periods of time following drought experiences”.

“So this saying that was developed by the UN in the 1990s, ‘water, water everywhere, but not when needed’ is appropriate,” said Collymore.

He highlighted a number of key considerations for disaster planners, including, “what it is that we are seeking to manage when those things happen? Are we dealing with the same problems, that is, the things we have forecasted? And do we have structures for [such events], or are we realizing that these things are really much more sudden, almost like the nature of earthquakes – a very rapid onset, very impacted in terms of damage?”

He stayed clear of criticizing the current crop of disaster managers.

However, he warned “if we manage these [news threats] in the same way as though we had anticipated hazards, both the emergency managers and the victims would feel short-changed”.

Collymore also emphasized the need for the region to adapt its existing architecture to meet the changing disaster needs, saying “that also would apply to our key economic sectors – agriculture, water and tourism” as the language of traditional disaster management – monitoring, early warning and risk management – was now becoming a way of life.


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