Disaster preparedness in Jamaica: Are we becoming complacent?

We are just two weeks away from the official start of the 2022 Hurricane Season (June 1). I have noted a few news items this month (which is Hurricane Preparedness Month in the U.S., but regrettably not in Jamaica) – as follows:

The Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM), the primary Government agency responsible, has mold (very visible) right through its head office. Does everyone have to move out? This was first reported two years ago, according to TVJ. ODPEM’s management and the relevant Minister of Local Government that is responsible for this agency did not respond to calls. Has ODPEM been sidelined? Why is it so quiet? Six years ago, the former head of the agency, Dr. Barbara Carby, suggested that it had been sidelined as Hurricane Matthew approached, and largely useless information had been dished out by politicians. Has anything changed? Who is in charge of our disaster preparedness strategy (do we have one)? Importantly, two weeks before the start of the hurricane season, where is the sensitisation campaign? Where is the public education? ODPEM has a very low-key social media presence (an easy and cheap way to get the word out). Perhaps we had better just adopt the U.S. version of Hurricane Preparedness Month.

Europe heating up.

Globally, Europe is going through a “warm spell.” France is enduring an unprecedented drought. Not only are crops in danger there, but houses are collapsing.

The average Arctic sea ice extent for April 2022 was 14.06 million km², 630000 km² below the 1981-2010 average and was the 11th lowest on records. Average Antarctic sea ice extent was 1010000 km² below average and tied the 4th lowest on records.

In India and Pakistan, a tremendous heatwave has hit. Nawabshah, Pakistan, hit 49.5 degrees Celsius (120.2°F) – the hottest temperature recorded on Earth so far in 2022. Hundreds, if not thousands, have died from heatstroke in recent weeks, and crops have been failing.

The photo above shows a caretaker feeding water mixed with multivitamins to a parakeet after it was dehydrated due to heat at Jivdaya Charitable Trust, a non-governmental rehabilitation centre for birds and animals, during hot weather in Ahmedabad, India, May 11, 2022. (Photo: REUTERS/Amit Dave)

As always, whatever the impact of climate change (floods, landslides, drought, hurricanes), it is the poor who suffer. In Jamaica, the poor are to blame for “building their houses in the wrong place,” for not disposing of their solid waste properly, and for numerous other environmental offences. Squatting and land issues remain fraught with political manipulation, hypocrisy and (dare I say) corruption, and will not be solved this century in Jamaica.

Sherine Newman shows the section of her house in Harbour View that the gully is undermining. She fears that continued rainfall will eventually cause serious damage to her property and endanger lives. (Photo: Gleaner)

Back home again, there have been regular television reports pointing to the deepening anxiety of residents of Harbour View, on the outskirts of Kingston. Architect Patricia Green, an eloquent advocate on behalf of many beleaguered urban Jamaicans, wrote a brilliant piece about their plight this week. These citizens – those who purchased their houses as part of a housing scheme, and those in Melbrook Heights, an “informal” community, are literally perched on the edge of disaster, with more of their land disappearing before their eyes every time it rains. This is nothing new; it has been happening for the past several years. Why has this issue not been solved that directly threatens the lives of at least thirty households in a vulnerable part of our coast?

There are many Jamaicans, in urban and rural communities, who literally dread the arrival of heavy rains. The hurricane season, in particular, is not something that we should take lightly, these days. And yet, there is an air of almost complacency about the actual physical effect a major storm might have on our island. We continue to look the other way when sand is mined illegally in Hope River (which is affecting the Harbour View residents) and the beautiful Rio Grande in Portland – the latter, supposedly, a tourist attraction. We continue to destroy the mangroves that would protect our shores from high winds and waves to build hotels. And yet, surely we know by now, tourism is the sector that is most vulnerable to climate change impacts – and that is not going to change. Further inland, we continue to cut down mature trees that stand in the way of highways and bypasses. We have built one or two sea walls, which have not yet been tested.

Every year, we see our neighbours suffering from devastating storms and floods – in recent times, Haiti and the Bahamas come to mind. Perhaps we think it’s not going to happen to us? Why aren’t we talking more about disaster preparedness?

The gender balance is poor (especially considering that women are severely affected by climate change) but here is a group photo of the United Nations/UWI panel that focused on climate change and disaster preparation. (L-R) Jomain McKenzie (UNRCO), Dr. Olaf J. De Groot (UNRCO), Dr. Garry Conille, UN Resident Coordinator, Professor Dale Webber, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Principal UWI (Mona), Professor Ian Boxill, Deputy Principal UWI Mona, Dr. Nadine McCloud, Head, Department of Economics UWI Mona, Jonathan Archie, Deputy Campus Registrar. Photo Credit: Ciara Patterson (UNRCO)

Well, some are talking about it – including the Jamaica Economy Panel (JEP), which recently released the results of discussions and surveys looking at climate change and our preparedness for “natural” disasters (which are mostly unnatural – they are man-made). The Panel, which in this case consisted of representatives of the United Nations office in Jamaica joining academics at the University of the West Indies’ Department of Economics, made this point, among others:

The panellists identified several critical hazards in Jamaica primarily impacted by climate change, with cyclones (hurricanes) naturally being at the top. However, they are also particularly concerned about people whose livelihoods depend on the coast and who may suffer from a confluence of impacts. With hurricanes, rising sea levels and threats to biodiversity, such coast-dependent lives are likely to suffer the strongest.

The full report is posted here. The JEP also welcomed the Government’s issuance of a catastrophe bond, although it noted that the amount was insufficient.

However, putting finances aside for just one moment, the JEP report hinted at what concerns me in all of this: that there is a perceived lack of vigilance. Are we slacking off, psychologically? We have not suffered a major hurricane or a “direct hit” in the past few years. But to me, a disaster preparedness plan, based on science and not on the whims of politicians, needs to be reviewed and energetically addressed – each year, anew. However, we don’t need to know how many shelters there are, and where. We need to know what to do if our house is threatened by flood waters, or our cattle are dying in the heat, or our roof is blown off during a tropical storm.

What’s the plan? Well, let’s look again at ODPEM’s Comprehensive Disaster Management Strategy (2014 – 2024). It’s all there, online, hidden in plain sight. Let’s go through it and see whether it is still relevant and up to date, in 2022.

At a recent meeting organised by the Climate Change Division, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Resident Representative Denise Antonio observed:

“I encourage us to look at the science to inform our work…Heeding the science is the gateway out of the climate crisis. Ignoring the science will put people and planet in peril like never before.”

Uncut Conversations, Kingston, Jamaica, May 2022
Dr. Denise Antonio speaking at “Uncut Conversations” recently.

I hope the “powers that be” are listening. Meanwhile, it’s a case of fingers crossed – we’ve been “lucky.” Let’s hope we are “lucky” again this year.

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