November 9, 2010
Disaster preparedness – whose responsibility?


We have probably reached the stage here in St. Vincent and the Grenadines where we might have to go back to ringing church bells, raising flags on police stations and sending out persons in vehicles with loudspeakers, to alert residents that a weather system is approaching.{{more}}

But even those measures may not have elicited a response last week, for despite broadcasts on local radio stations from as early as 11:00 a.m. on Friday, October 29, some Vincentians are of the view that the National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO) did not alert them sufficiently, or in time, about the possibility that we might have been affected by a weather system.

Many of us are putting the blame for our individual and family lack of preparedness on NEMO, when, if we are honest, we would admit that the way we responded on October 29, was the way we normally do. In fact, in the Editorial of Searchlight on Tuesday, August 24, 2010, we asked how many persons had taken note of a broadcast on NBC radio on August 23, which said that a tropical wave was approaching the island. We opined that few listeners had taken note and decided to keep track of the weather system to determine how much risk it posed as it moved closer. We said then, and recent events have proved our words right, that we always think we would have enough time to prepare before the hurricane actually strikes.

At 8:00 a.m. on Friday, October 29, the National Hurricane Centre issued an advisory about a strong tropical wave located about 360 miles southeast of the southern Windward Islands. The advisory said that environmental conditions were conducive for a tropical depression or a tropical storm to form during the next day or so. On Saturday at 8:00 a.m., the tropical wave had developed into Tropical Storm Tomas and was located 70 miles East of St. Vincent. By 11:00 a.m., Tropical Storm Tomas had developed into the 12th hurricane of the season and was now Hurricane Tomas, located 35 miles east of St. Vincent.

The weather system developed from a tropical wave into a hurricane in just over 24 hours, giving residents little time to pull things together, but what have we been doing since June when the hurricane season began?

The public service announcements about hurricane preparedness on the radio stations have been played so frequently, that children recite them word for word. The one about Miss Sammy going to the hurricane shelter with her long empty hands is especially popular, but beyond enjoying the radio skit, do we take the advice to make sure we have put aside a battery operated radio with batteries, our medications, important documents, enough food supplies to last three days, in the event that we have to evacuate? When the Prime Minister made his national address at 6:45 a.m. on Saturday, how many of us, at that point, filled up containers with water so that in the event that we lost our water supply, we would still have been able to take care of our basic hygiene needs and have water to drink?

NEMO has been running community training programmes on disaster preparedness for the last few months. How many of us attended? They have been speaking of the need to make family emergency plans and to put together emergency kits. How many of us have done so?

The truth is, our good fortune over the years when it comes to hurricanes, has made us complacent. To put it bluntly, some of us just couldn’t be bothered by tropical weather advisories. In fact, only a few years ago, Director of NEMO Howie Prince was accused by some of getting overly excited and unnecessarily worrying residents whenever a weather system was in the vicinity.

Maybe now we will pay more attention.