The Gov­ern­ment must not re­cant

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY -

WE EX­PECT there to be a fair bit of dam­age to prop­erty and in­fra­struc­ture from the pum­melling eastern Cuba will have taken from Hur­ri­cane Matthew. In most other places, as is ev­i­denced by Haiti, the dev­as­ta­tion would be far worse. In­deed, bar­ring an ex­tra­or­di­nary de­vel­op­ment, if there are deaths in Cuba, the toll will be rel­a­tively low.

We make these ob­ser­va­tions for we be­lieve there are lessons for Ja­maica to learn from Cuba in the prepa­ra­tion for, and man­age­ment of, nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, es­pe­cially hur­ri­canes, about whose oc­cur­rences there is of­ten sub­stan­tial warn­ing. These are lessons, to be fair, that Ja­maica has be­gun to em­brace, which is why the Gov­ern­ment and its dis­as­ter-man­age­ment agen­cies ought not to sec­ond-guess their ag­gres­sive pre­pared­ness warn­ings when Matthew posed a threat to the is­land.

The au­thor­i­ties, of course, will feel pres­sured to be­have oth­er­wise in the face of pos­si­ble ridicule for al­leged fore­cast­ing in­com­pe­tence, on the ba­sis that it is the sec­ond time in re­cent months that Ja­maicans have been mo­bilised for an im­pend­ing storm that didn’t strike. There will be com­plaints that it was the sec­ond time in re­cent months that the pop­u­la­tion has been placed on such an alert, caus­ing peo­ple to spend money and ex­ert en­ergy, ap­par­ently for noth­ing.

Any such anal­y­sis, how­ever, is nei­ther true nor logical and misses fun­da­men­tal truths. Me­te­o­rol­ogy is a sci­ence, but while fore­cast­ers, hav­ing taken the variables into ac­count, can plot the ex­pected move­ment of a storm, get­ting it pre­cisely right is not al­ways pos­si­ble if all char­ac­ter­is­tics are no longer con­stant. That hap­pened to Ja­maica’s ben­e­fit with Matthew.

None­the­less, some com­mu­ni­ties re­jected pre­pared­ness warn­ings to their, and other peo­ple’s, peril. There are, for in­stance, the sev­eral past cases of res­i­dents de­clin­ing of­fers of evac­u­a­tion, only to call for help when the sit­u­a­tion turns to cri­sis. Herein is the les­son from Cuba. It is not for noth­ing that de­spite be­ing sub­ject, over the past half-cen­tury, to sim­i­lar hur­ri­canes as its Caribbean neigh­bours, Cuba tends to have fewer ca­su­al­ties in nom­i­nal and per capita terms— even lower than the United States.


Part of the ex­pla­na­tion for this is a dif­fer­ence in the philo­soph­i­cal ap­proach. Rather than a fo­cus of emer­gency re­sponse and post-cri­sis re­con­struc­tion, theirs is a cul­ture of safety and mit­i­ga­tion: of pre­vent­ing the phe­nom­e­non be­com­ing a dis­as­ter and hu­man tragedy. Train­ing, plan­ning and en­force­ment of preven­tion regimes are crit­i­cal in that system.

For in­stance, in the face of threats from Matthew, sev­eral thou­sand peo­ple were evac­u­ated from vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties. Peo­ple knew ex­actly what to do and where to go. They trusted the civil-de­fence ar­range­ments and acted in ac­cor­dance with warn­ings.

If cir­cum­stances changed and the dis­man­tling of 10,000 so­lar pan­els — as hap­pened this week — from a fa­cil­ity in San­ti­ago de Cuba, was for noth­ing, it was part of the ex­er­cise in which con­fi­dence is re­posed. It helps, of course, to have a well-ed­u­cated, gen­er­ally dis­ci­plined pop­u­la­tion that ap­pre­ci­ates the value, eco­nomic and oth­er­wise, and nu­ances of such prepa­ra­tions.

It’s a system that, de­spite the ex­is­tence and ef­forts of an agency like ODPEM, is still em­bry­onic in Ja­maica. Its ac­cel­er­a­tion will be helped by mak­ing drills and other train­ing part of the school cur­ricu­lum.

In the mean­time, the Gov­ern­ment must per­sist with its civil-de­fence ef­forts and get on with the lit­tle things, like clean­ing drains, which mit­i­gates ur­ban flood­ing.

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