Being ready when the tempest comes

The horror caused in Saint Martin, Barbuda and Anguilla by the monster storm Irma is heart wrenching.

And the full scope of the damage is only just unfolding.

So far, we know that four people perished in St Martin and, according to local official Daniel Gibbs, “95 per cent of the island is destroyed”.

Over on Barbuda, one child has died and Prime Minister Gaston Browne reported that about 95 per cent of homes and buildings had suffered damage.

“It’s absolute devastation….The island is literally underwater. In fact, I’m of the view that, as it stands now, Barbuda is barely habitable,” Browne reported after an aerial tour of the island.

Anguilla recorded one death and destruction is everywhere.

“Roads blocked. Hospital damaged. Power down. Communications badly impaired. Help needed,” Anguilla’s Attorney General John McKendrick wrote on an instant messaging service.

Earlier this evening, the unrelenting Category 5 system was churning its way towards the Turks and Caicos Islands and on to The Bahamas.

And even before damage assessment and recovery efforts could get underway, the fast developing Hurricane Jose was on its way to the already battered Leeward Islands.

We offer urgent prayers and support for our brothers and sisters and look forward to playing an important role in their recovery by providing any and all support necessary.

It is imperative that every Barbadian sits up and pays attention.

The catastrophe facing our Caribbean neighbours could have easily been on our doorsteps. And, if it had, one would have to agree that Barbados would have been decimated if the recent havoc caused by the mild Tropical Storm Harvey just a few weeks ago was anything to go by.

Disaster management expert Roy Ward told this media house that while the country may have been able to survive structurally, it would have suffered substantial infrastructural damage were it to encounter a system of Irma’s intensity.

His biggest fear is that this country is still not taking disaster preparedness seriously, particularly since it has not been visited by a major hurricane since David in 1979.

With confidence, we assert that the experience of catastrophic Hurricane Irma should change this.

We can’t stress enough that the severe pain that Irma has caused and the generally high cost of natural disasters, should prompt Government and citizens to plan more adequately, since our chances of being devastated by a major hurricane are virtually assured.

Therefore, dialogue on disaster management must become a priority.

Weather experts have predicted that hurricanes will become more powerful and intense with climate change. It means that, for vulnerable islands like ours, a disaster management plan has to be supported by ongoing preparedness, not just during the hurricane season, but throughout the year.

With a solid plan and better coordination, we can in fact minimize the damage to life and property.

It makes no sense waiting until the approach of a storm to talk about preparation.

Citizens must be armed with the knowledge that they have a role to play in being proactive to reduce the severity of the impact of a storm or other disaster.

The public needs to practise and perfect the critical dos and don’ts of disaster preparedness.

Equally, Government has to demonstrate that the issue of disaster management is firmly on its agenda.

Disaster preparedness needs constant upgrading. Our shelters can still use much improvement. Our national shutdown policy must be fine-tuned, and alert protocols can be upgraded.

The onslaught of Irma has valuable lessons for Barbados even though we escaped its fury.

Ward pointed out that too many people are still allowed to build homes in flood zones and businesses along the coastline.

Therefore, our disaster managers and planners must seriously analyze whether the time has come for the introduction of strict building codes, particularly in high risk areas.

Barbados has to be smarter about its development.

We can ill afford to rebuild communities in vulnerable areas after a disaster occurs, only to suffer certain destruction when the next system barrels our way.

Careful thought must also be given to ensuring that more Barbadians have adequate insurance cover.

To miss the lessons from super storm Irma is too risky.

With climate change threatening our vulnerable countries, we must abandon our complacency and seriously prepare for whatever lies ahead.

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