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Sustainability for the Caribbean Islands

By Carlvon Ramsingh

Much has been said and written in terms of the cost of Hurricane Irma on the Caribbean islands, especially in Antigua & Barbuda, St. Maarten, Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, and the US Virgin Islands. Many officials from Britain and France have visited along with their military, and some leaders in the Caribbean. All have reported seeing massive destruction and devastation the likes they have not seen, and indeed Caribbean diplomat Ronald Saunders pointed out the fact that for the first time in 300 years, the island of Barbuda has been totally abandoned, without a soul on land.

The cost of restoration has been projected to be billions of dollars, and whilst this might be true, the narrative of cost and restoration versus sustainability is a pertinent and urgent one which must be addressed. Rebuilding, restoring and sustaining the islands must be a priority.

In this context then, the following must be considered:

1. The islands have not been destroyed. It’s the vegetation and houses and infrastructure that has been destroyed, not the island.

2. Having said that, what is being proposed is to rebuild those physical structures. Mind you, the trees will regenerate, the beaches will regenerate, and the waters will be calmed again.

3. I therefore submit that it is the people, and the island, its vegetation, its beaches, it’s seas, bays and reefs, will remain, and therefore the sustainability, both economic and social is what is more important.

4. Rebuilding must therefore take place in that context, I.e. Creating a better life for the people socio-economically, socio-culturally, socio-technically and socio-politically.

4. Through current, emerging and future technology in this the Digital Age, these islands can leapfrog into the 21st Century, and therefore “rebuilding” must take place in this context, I wish to strongly suggest.

Buildings built to withstand Category 5 hurricanes, will sustain economic activity in Tourism, as it will provide the confidence and trust for tourist to visit, comfortable in the fact that they can more than survive in the event of an emergency. Building can be made self-sustaining as emergency solar and wind energy generation provide water and air-conditioning, heat for cooking and power for realtime communications. Less damage will result in the event of a storm or hurricane as islands become more resilient to an environment of increasing storm activity due to the increasing temperature of ocean surfaces in the hurricane belt.

Whether, these islands belong to the US, Britain, France or the Netherlands, they belong first and foremost to the Caribbean and the people of the Caribbean. The foreign powers, whilst I acknowledge their contributions should not assume a neo-colonialist stance, but treat with the human capital of these islands as a resource that can be nurtured, developed and actualized as wealth creating for all, including themselves.

The islands have long been exploited as assets, not resources, under the guise of being tourists destinations, dependent on tourist spending, grants and loans which have kept these places as play grounds for the rich and famous.

It is a chance for a new beginning. I submit in 2017, that must no longer be the case.

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A Disaster Management Planning Imperative

Government agencies are all setup to react after the event to provide logistical, financial, medical or environmental responses. The challenge is to engage a disaster Management planning mechanism that is designed to save lives before the occurrence of an event like a hurricane which allows sometime prior its occurrence.

PS With Hurricane Irma on the way, people should already have been warned, evacuation routes planned, logistics put in place, a general readiness being executed.

Nothing can stop a hurricane, tropical storm, earthquake or natural fire from occurring. It can occur at any time, any place and with a high-scale unpredictability about location, force, or effect. The damage is so great that it’s effects can last for years, it’s cost will amount to billions of dollars with lives lost, destroyed or totally disrupted. In times such as these, there is great upheaval, with unspeakable misery and suffering experienced by victims of these circumstances. First responders, aid agencies, official and other wise as well as government are thrown into disarray as the extent of the effects of the event become clearer as hours and days progress. Hurricane Harvey, hitting the state of Texas posed such problems multiplied by 10. It’s been heard described as the 1000 year flood.

People evacuated the area, but The Coast Guard still rescued thousands of people caught stranded by fast rising flood waters, so to volunteers such as concerned individuals and groups such as the Cajun Army. People, pets and wild animals were all caught in the flood waters with nowhere to go but wait to be rescued. Many perished because of the difficulty of reaching them in time or by being caught by the rushing waters.

Homes, downtown buildings and offices, streets, roads, airports were all rendered inoperable. Electricity couldn’t be turned off because there was not enough time to shutdown plants and generators. That left rescuers and rescuees at the mercy of fallen power lines…in water. Even shelters were affected.

That is what happens when a massive storm hits. Everything and everyone is at risk. It is estimated to take years to rebuild.

So the burning question is : Was there a plan? There are many things to consider in answering this question. Old infrastructure, urban development, uncertainty of the path of the hurricane and a whole list of other issues which is not the purpose of this blog to delve into. The reactive nature of efforts to rescue and meet the needs of people in distress suggests that Disaster Planning was limited to the present situation. Further down the road, Emergency management agencies are also of a reactive nature as they are setup to respond aftera disaster.

A mindful, strategic disaster plan would surely have identified the occurrence of a major hurricane having had previous experience, and the occurrence of major flooding. The onset of flooding is quick and fast, and at least resources would have put on alert first responders deployed by the state. Thankfully the Cajun Warriors and other alert individuals stepped in, otherwise the toll would have been even more. Perhaps a strategic disaster plan could have included the deployment of modern technology such as the Internet of Things (IoT) or Smart Homes and Smart City models. Certainly the technology exist today for online tracking of people, things and the weather. The fast onset of the event of flooding should certainly have been taken into account in the disaster planning process, but the response of officials and law enforcement could have been more effective in moving people more quickly. Law enforcement should be more forceful in enforcing a mandatory evacuation before the storm actually hit, regardless of the uncertainty of the actual path. An important lesson to learn is that once the General area has been identified for land fall, adequate warning and evacuations must be enforced ahead of time to protect lives which must be the primary concern. Given the general path can be identified at least a few days in advance, evacuation must be a priority. The actions were reactive.

Disaster planning, management and recovery is now an imperative given the frequent occurrences of these mega-storms. During the Harvey Hurricane, and the aftermath, there appeared to be much uncoordinated and unmanaged first responders activities. Many calls to 911 went unanswered, and many areas didn’t receive proper or prompt attention. Mobilization of forces such as the coast guard, navy, state reserves etc were called out. They should have already been mobilized in coordinated, quick response.

Disaster planning is an ongoing task, which must be approached with professionalism, seriousness and urgency as an event can occur at anytime. Communication is a key component to this. Placing information online is proactive, but more effective than that is a concerted outreach programme so that people are made aware. Mandatory online registration can be very effective and cost effective and the technology is available. It must be utilized properly.

The severity of the event, cataclysmic in its occurrence demands that state and federal agencies must engage in the strategic planning of Disaster Planning, Recovery and Management.

The aftermath and recovery will bring many challenges such as relocation, infrastructural, health, financial and mental. People lives have been shattered, which could have been ameliorated with proper seriousness of the politicians. It’s nice to have all kinds of state agencies show themselves prominently, but such a reactive, limelight hugging is political rather than proactive governance.

Whilst acknowledging all for their fantastic rescue work, much hardship could have been avoided. The excuse of ” we didn’t know the exact path it will take” hence we didn’t know who to evacuate is rather self serving. With proper planning and management, many people would have been sparred the hardships they now face. Lt. Gen Russel Honore (Ret.) criticized the fact that people were not evacuated before the storm hit. Having headed the Katrina relief efforts in the immediate aftermath, he should know.

But it must be remembered how powerful the magnet of the camera is!

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