North Carolina’s warn­ing to Ja­maica

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY -

DE­SPITE THE nearly 900 deaths in Haiti, the emerg­ing story of Hur­ri­cane Matthew ear­lier this month is per­haps North Carolina in United States. It is one to which Ja­maica should pay at­ten­tion and learn from.

To be clear, it is not the in­ten­tion of this news­pa­per to dis­miss, or oth­er­wise un­der­play, the hu­man tragedy in Haiti – a coun­try whose his­tory has been wrought by too much suf­fer­ing. It is, for in­stance, barely six years ago that a mas­sive earth­quake in that coun­try killed more than 200,000 peo­ple and dam­aged, or de­stroyed, 300,000-plus build­ings.

But Haiti is the poor­est coun­try in the Western Hemi­sphere, with a se­verely un­der­de­vel­oped in­fra­struc­ture and an on­go­ing strug­gle to de­velop a so­cial and po­lit­i­cal con­sen­sus and the thriv­ing democ­racy that could flow from this. This state of af­fairs is, in part, the price the coun­try of de­scen­dants of slaves con­tin­ues to pay for its over­throw – more than 200 years ago – of a Euro­pean power to de­clare it­self a black in­de­pen­dent na­tion.

With its weak phys­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture and lim­ited re­sponse ca­pa­bil­i­ties – ex­ac­er­bated by a de­nuded en­vi­ron­ment – there is al­ways the fear of mass ca­su­al­ties when nat­u­ral catas­tro­phes hit Haiti. In­deed, dis­as­ter preven­tion and mit­i­ga­tion pro­grammes, in which Haiti’s Caribbean Com­mu­nity part­ners are in­volved, should ex­pand and deepen ex­ist­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion.

That pro­gramme must in­clude ro­bust sys­tems of dis­as­ter pre­pared­ness, ed­u­ca­tion and re­sponse that tran­scend per­son­al­ity, but rely on in­sti­tu­tional mech­a­ni­sa­tions for their ac­ti­va­tion and en­gage­ment.

Hav­ing caused dev­as­ta­tion in Haiti, wreaked havoc in eastern Cuba, and slammed into cen­tral Ba­hamas, Hur­ri­cane Matthew hugged the coast of south­east USA. It was ex­pected to do most dam­age in the states of Florida and Ge­or­gia. North Carolina was pro­jected to be least im­pacted by the storm.

In the event, as it headed past Florida, Ge­or­gia and South Carolina, the hur­ri­cane moved fur­ther off­shore than ini­tially pro­jected, and though its winds and storm surges caused sub­stan­tial dam­age and nearly 20 deaths in these states, the dis­as­ter was not nearly as bad as an­tic­i­pated. Not so in North Carolina, over which its winds passed, hav­ing shifted track.


Dam­age caused by winds apart, river sys­tems in the cen­tral part of that state over­flowed their banks, flood­ing vast ar­eas. Nearly a fort­night af­ter the pas­sage of the hur­ri­cane, an es­ti­mated 100,000 homes, of­fices and gov­ern­ment build­ing re­main in­un­dated. Nearly 30 North Carolini­ans are dead, of 48 killed by the storm in the USA. The eco­nomic dam­age is to run to sev­eral bil­lion dol­lars.

There are two points here. The United States is a rich, de­vel­oped na­tion with so­phis­ti­cated catas­tro­phe preven­tion and re­sponse mech­a­nisms, whose warn­ings were largely heeded by ci­ti­zens in the path of the hur­ri­cane. Sec­ond, while me­te­o­rol­ogy is a well-de­vel­oped and so­phis­ti­cated sci­ence, storm track­ing is not ab­so­lutely pre­cise. Hur­ri­cane Matthew needed only shift a few de­grees from its track to cause dev­as­ta­tion in North Carolina. The hu­man cost might have been worse, but warn­ing sys­tems saved lives in that state, as they did in Florida, Ge­or­gia and South Carolina.

Ja­maica has had a prob­lem of peo­ple in flood-prone ar­eas not heed­ing storm warn­ings and re­spond­ing to dis­as­ter pre­pared­ness mes­sages. That is a cul­ture that can be changed by con­tin­u­ing ed­u­ca­tion and re­in­forc­ing in­for­ma­tion, as Bar­bara Carby, the head of the Dis­as­ter Risk Re­duc­tion Cen­tre at the Uni­ver­sity of the West Indies, ob­served. Those re­sults come from build­ing and ad­her­ing to sys­tems, rather than de­pend­ing on per­son­al­i­ties.

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