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Jamaica better prepared for hurricanes since Gilbert but...

BY JAVENE SKYERS
Observer staff reporter
skyersj@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

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JAMAICA'S hurricane preparedness has come a far way since the island was devastated by Gilbert in 1988, but three parish disaster coordinators (PDCs), with whom the Jamaica Observer spoke on Monday, believe there are still some key issues that need to be resolved.

Gilbert, which made landfall in Jamaica 29 years ago on September 12 and was the first hurricane to hit the island directly in 37 years, caused widespread devastation, reportedly killed 45 people, and left an estimated US$4 -billion bill after widespread damage.

Parish disaster coordinator for Hanover, Keniesha Stennett-Dunbar said all agencies in the parish are prepared, as best as possible, to deal with a hurricane of Gilbert's scale, which hit Jamaica as a Category 4 system.

In fact, Stennett-Dunbar explained that while the Hanover Disaster Committee has gathered as many of the necessary equipment needed and all shelters have been inspected, one of the key concerns is the reluctance of residents to leave their homes when a natural disaster such as a hurricane or tropical storm strikes.

“One of the concerns is really based on the culture of residents who are very independent and so most of them have their little structures and even though we have shelters available, the fact is that they have acquired their buildings and find it very hard to abandon them,” the parish disaster coordinator told the Jamaica Observer in a phone interview Monday afternoon.

She said the Hanover Municipal Corporation, in partnership with the Fire Prevention Unit, has been trying to address this by increasing public awareness campaigns as it relates to preparedness, and there has been a gradual change in attitude.

“… We find more persons are aware of what's happening now…especially with global warming and climate change, and so we have more people going to the shelters, in fact we had more than 55 people in shelters during [the threat of hurricane] Matthew,” Stennett-Dunbar said.

She said the municipal corporation has put in place a permanent drain cleaning team which has helped to alleviate the issue of flooding in the parish.

She added that presently there are no major concerns when it comes to commercial buildings or infrastructure that could prove to problematic regarding withstanding hurricane-type winds, noting that the corporation has been proactive in this regards as notices were sent out recently to residents and business operators advising that that buildings of concern would be demolished.

The Hanover PDC said, too, that it did a community walk where residents were encouraged to trim their trees and clear other little things they may have been ignoring, and said that persons have been complying.

But there is one area Stennett-Dunbar said she would like to see addressed before another hurricane or tropical storm threatens the island.

“Our shelters are mostly schools, so in the event that we have to house persons for a long-term period we would have issues with the operations of schools, so that is a major concern. We need to find other possible buildings to be utilised as shelters…”

Meanwhile, the PDC for the municipality of Portmore, Phillipa Ricketts-Edmund said if a hurricane like Gilbert should strike, because of Portmore's geo-location, the entire area could suffer great damage as a number of them are at sea levels.

She said the flooding that would result from the impact of the hurricane would merit evacuation and it is always important that when an evacuation order is given, persons listen and follow accordingly.

Ricketts-Edmund noted, however, that since there are no mandatory evacuation orders, it is left entirely up to the conscience of a person to determine whether or not they should stay.

As it relates to preparedness, the Portmore PDC explained that it is a continuous effort as they are not “waiting on fingers and toes for something to happen”, and so they remain steadfast in their efforts to ensure everything is in place, should a disaster strike.

The various initiatives include continuous public education programmes across schools, citizens' associations and other civic groups, as well as training in shelter management.

She explained that they had training in shelter management as recently as July, where 15 new persons were added to the existing team of 35.

Like the Hanover Municipal Corporation, Ricketts-Edmund explained that the municipality also has an active drain-cleaning programme which has vastly aided Portmore with regards to flooding.

However, she highlighted that there are concerns as it relates to buildings being able to withstand hurricane force winds as there are various informal settlements across the municipality, such as in Gregory Park that, based on materials used, would not be able to withstand Category Five winds.

She said another area of concern for Portmore, and even the wider Jamaica, has to do with the need for mandatory evacuation, especially in communities in close proximity to the sea.

She added that the municipality has about three or more fishing villages, including Hellshire and Port Henderson, which are considered priority areas and where persons need to evacuate should an order be given.

Ricketts-Edmund shared that as it relates to areas of national concern and hurricane preparedness, one segment of the population that needs more attention are people living with disabilities.

“… Yes, we have done some amount of work. One shelter was retrofitted to accommodate persons with disabilities...but some of these persons do live alone. And a survey was conducted in 2011 to find out where these persons live, and so it would very important to do an update,” the Portmore PDC stated.

Noting the importance of this as such individuals be given priority, she added that women and children who live alone were also a focal point as they might not be able to do the necessary battening down that is needed.

Ricketts-Edmund said, too, that community emergency response teams are in place to help identify persons who need assistance in the various communities, but said overall more effort should be put in place in order to reduce response time to natural disasters.

Parish disaster coordinator for Trelawny Dion Hylton-Lewis, meanwhile, said the parish is “about 75 per cent ready” for a major hurricane as there is a disaster plan as well as updated contact and shelter lists.

She added that shelters have been identified, residents have been made aware of their locations, and agreements are in place with petroleum and grocery suppliers to respond to needs should there be a disaster.

But the Trelawny PDC has concerns about squatter settlements, saying houses are not strong enough to withstand high winds and are also prone to flooding.

Hylton-Lewis said the best the municipal corporation could do in the event of a storm or hurricane is to assist in getting residents of informal settlements into shelters.

She added: “Public awareness efforts are ongoing in these communities that are prone to flooding to ensure they have a community disaster plan, and we carry out simulation exercises with them and also provide them with resources to assist them when there is flooding [after heavy rain].” These resources include machetes, raincoats and water boots.

However, Hylton-Lewis said that from a national perspective more needs to be done in terms of the provision of welfare resources to assist affected people with items such as cots, blankets and food items after a natural disaster.

She noted that the emergency operation centres in the various parishes can be better equipped and located, pointing out that Trewlany's own relief centre is located in Falmouth, which is an area vulnerable to flooding.

The PDC also stressed the importance of having a family disaster plan with important information such as contact information for each person living within a household, emergency numbers, and location for members to meet should they get displaced.

“It's very important for each family to have a family disaster plan, because if the family is not prepared then the community is not prepared and then the parish is definitely not prepared. So it is up to us as individuals to prepare for a disaster, as it respects no one,” Hylton-Lewis said.

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