Bet­ter safe than sorry

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY - Garth A. Rat­tray is a med­i­cal doc­tor with a fam­ily prac­tice. Email feedback to col­umns@glean­ and garthrat­

ONCE AGAIN, Ja­maica was spared catas­tro­phe from a ma­jor weather phe­nom­e­non. This was the clos­est in re­cent mem­ory. Hur­ri­cane Matthew was more pow­er­ful than the legendary Hur­ri­cane Gil­bert. The pos­si­ble loss of life, prop­erty, in­fra­struc­ture, crops, in­dus­try and earn­ings could have been dev­as­tat­ing.

Hur­ri­cane Matthew fol­lowed a pre­dicted path (al­beit rather slowly) un­til it tracked away from us and to­wards Haiti. We were brac­ing our­selves for a Cat­e­gory Four or Five mon­ster that would strip roofs, dis­man­tle build­ings, level hill­sides, rip up road­ways, de­stroy crops, halt com­merce, dis­rupt com­mu­ni­ca­tions, cut elec­tric­ity, in­un­date rivers, dis­lo­cate, maim and kill our cit­i­zens. But, in­stead, we got cloudy skies, a few whispering winds, some storm surges and fairly brief, scat­tered rain­fall. The only trau­matic loss of life dur­ing that time was from crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity – a peren­nial, shameful, em­bar­rass­ing and un­nat­u­ral dis­as­ter of no mean or­der.

Many Ja­maicans have be­come over­con­fi­dent and feel al­most in­vul­ner­a­ble. Some believe that their earnest prayers have been sav­ing Ja­maica from cer­tain dis­as­ter. But that doesn’t ex­plain why that same mer­ci­ful God would slam the Cat­e­gory Four hur­ri­cane into Haiti – a poor and suf­fer­ing na­tion, still try­ing to slowly re­cover from an un­be­liev­ably dev­as­tat­ing earth­quake that oc­curred six years ago. So prayers alone can’t ex­plain our good for­tune.

I don’t know if it’s prayers, good luck, high-pres­sure sys­tems, steer­ing winds, air cur­rents or the un­pre­dictable and ever-chang­ing in­ter­nal me­chan­ics of the weather sys­tems that turn their eyes away from us, but we must be grate­ful for mer­cies. My con­cern is that our cit­i­zens will never take me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal bul­letins se­ri­ous in the fu­ture.

We know that the be­hav­iour of storms can only be pre­dicted based on pat­terns (mod­els) that take into ac­count the pre­vail­ing weather con­di­tions. The in­ter­na­tional and lo­cal me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal of­fices did ex­cel­lent work in not only fore­cast­ing the track and power of the dis­tur­bance but also in com­mu­ni­cat­ing their find­ings and pre­dic­tions. Those who crit­i­cised the Met Ser­vice and sug­gested that it is­sued pan­icked and er­ro­neous in­for­ma­tion were ei­ther ex­traor­di­nar­ily silly or in­cred­i­bly ig­no­rant.


The Govern­ment did won­der­ful work dur­ing the threat. Spe­cial ku­dos to the Of­fice of Dis­as­ter Pre­pared­ness and Emer­gency Man­age­ment (ODPEM). The body is­sued dis­as­ter­pre­pared­ness tips, ac­ti­vated full (Level Three) re­sponse and opened emer­gency shel­ters in good time. I whole­heart­edly agree with Lo­cal Govern­ment Min­is­ter Des­mond McKen­zie for stand­ing firm on the Govern­ment’s de­ci­sion to main­tain a high level of dis­as­ter pre­pared­ness even when the hur­ri­cane was pre­dicted to move so far away from us that we were threat­ened by storm­force, in­stead of hur­ri­cane-force, con­di­tions. The Govern­ment de­cided that it is far bet­ter to be safe than sorry.

Now that we have emer­gency re­sponse on the right path, we need to be far more proac­tive when it comes to foul weather pre­pared­ness. We al­ways hur­riedly clean gul­lies and storm drains from de­bris, garbage and over­grown veg­e­ta­tion when­ever we are un­der threat. But we need to em­bark on an ef­fec­tive and sus­tain­able, reg­u­lar main­te­nance sched­ule for keep­ing those storm water­ways clear at all times. Not only will that re­quire man­ual work, it will re­quire struc­tured surveil­lance ‘up­stream’ for things that can, and will, end up in the drains and gul­lies when­ever there is heavy rain­fall.

And, we must be much more proac­tive and zero-tol­er­ant when it comes to pol­lu­tion. Many gul­lies ac­cu­mu­late mounds of refuse that point to their ori­gin on the banks. Those struc­tures should be re­moved; it is il­le­gal to build any­thing that close to gully banks, but the pow­ers that be al­ways give their po­lit­i­cal base a free pass when it comes to mat­ters such as th­ese.

We must in­crease our vig­i­lance re­gard­ing build­ing projects that ob­struct the free flow of storm wa­ter, (il­le­gal) side­walk struc­tures, dis­carded mo­tor ve­hi­cle shells and ap­pli­ances. We must spend the time, ef­fort and money to help pre­vent refuse and de­bris from clog­ging our drainage sys­tems and pol­lut­ing our waters, or we will end up spend­ing a lot more to deal with the loss of life, prop­erty and liveli­hood.

Be­ing safe is not con­fined to rapid and sen­si­ble emer­gency re­sponse, it in­volves pre­vent­ing the things that can make us sorry over the short and long term.

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