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JIS News

When Hurricane Ivan hit the island’s shores last September, Jamaicans had a better handle on the preventative and safety measures they needed to take in the face of the 150 mph category four hurricane, unlike 16 years ago when Hurricane Gilbert all but caught the nation off-guard.
Ronald Jackson, Deputy Director General of the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) tells JIS News that using Hurricane Gilbert as a recent benchmark, “we have come a long way to see how our people react to the warnings given for impending storms and how they have prepared themselves to deal with it.I would say even though Ivan did not make landfall, I think the public behaved pretty much responsive.” Lessons learnt from Hurricane Gilbert, he says, has made the public more responsive “in terms of getting themselves ready to face the onslaught of a threatening storm at a category five, and I am sure that speaks to the heightened awareness of our people.” He hastens to point out though, that while there has been a noticeable increase in the awareness Jamaicans display as it relates to natural disasters such as hurricanes, there was still the need for persons to have greater appreciation of the linkage between the natural and man-made environments.
“We as a people have to become more aware of the dynamics of how we interact with the environment and what will in turn result,” he says.
Mr. Jackson says awareness of the environment is critical in disaster prevention, and even more so in the case of the poor, who comprise the demography of the Jamaican population and are the most vulnerable group in the occurrence of a natural disaster.
“The poor are the most vulnerable simply because they have no ability to transfer the risk they face from these hazards, they tend to gravitate to areas that are increasingly more vulnerable, such as along the banks of rivers and along gullies, and in flood plains where they can probably find an inexpensive source of land to occupy,” he informs JIS. He explains that some poor persons occupy lands illegally, and this fact makes them even more vulnerable as often times, there are no infrastructure in place to support their occupation of these areas.
The ODPEM Deputy Director General says apart from the poor, other groups that make up the “special population” and who should be paid keen attention in the event of disasters, include street children, the disabled, and the aged.
As such, he explains that there was a wide range of persons susceptible to danger “from those who are below the poverty line to those who may be above the poverty line but by virtue of other aspects, like their age or their level of support that they may have from family or guardian”.
Shifting focus to the disaster hazards Jamaica is likely to encounter, Mr. Jackson notes that, “our country is surrounded by water and by virtue of its location, we are in the line of various tropical storms and hurricanes year-round.”
“We are also prone to tectonic movements which gives rise to earthquakes, and of course, there are secondary effects of both hurricanes and earthquakes, in the nature of landslides and debris flows,” he adds. He further points out that there was the possibility of tsunamis occurring as the island was situated in an earthquake zone and earthquakes could produce tsunamis.
Droughts and bush fires, both of which were prevalent in sections of the island earlier this year, are two other hazards that Jamaica is faced with.
The ODPEM, according to Mr. Jackson, would in the future conduct a survey to test the general awareness of the public on necessary safety measures to take in the event of a disaster.
“It is certainly on our agenda,” he informs JIS, while further pointing out that “one of the things that we do is to measure changes in terms of social behaviour, changes as it relates to the hazards and risks they face”.
He says the ODPEM gauges the national responsiveness “by virtue of the number of responses we get asking us to come in and work with different groups, it may be a school or business, we have seen a spike, an increase in the number of requests that have come into our organisation both from the business sector, from schools, and from the general public at large”.
Mr. Jackson adds, “whether it is they are asking to do contingency planning training, or to assist with the development of plans, or just trying to get some information about different hazards and how different hazards behave and how it will impact on them”.
He says the willingness being demonstrated by many to engage the ODPEM is an encouraging sign as this response signalled to the agency that the public was becoming hungrier for knowledge, which in itself, represented power for the individual to make wiser decisions.
With Labour Day activities this year being observed under the theme, ‘Prepare for Disaster, Recover Faster’, Mr. Jackson says one of the shortcomings of Jamaicans in regard to their general attitudes towards disasters, was the fact that many believed that disaster management was the responsibility of the state, or state-run organisations such as the ODPEM.
Mr. Jackson notes, however that “disaster management starts with every individual”.
While he acknowledges that the state bears a degree of responsibility in the maintenance of infrastructure such as drains and gullies, “we also have to ask the public to contribute to the type of activities that lend itself to responsible social behaviour, such as how we dispose of our solid waste, how we farm, how we harvest water. A lot of rain is falling now but I am sure there are not a lot of persons harvesting water for when we go into dry periods”.
Speaking to the importance of preserving the island’s watersheds, Mr. Jackson remarks, “we are cutting down the trees in the upper watershed, loosening the soil there and when it rains there, it is coming down into our waterways, into the towns and causing destruction of infrastructure and housing and causing flooding”.
He stresses that there is need for persons to understand the inevitable cause-and-effect circumstances of their actions and as such, realise that nature has its own way of dealing and adjusting to land or areas whose natural states have been disrupted.
Mr. Jackson cites persons living along riverbanks or gullies as examples of casualties of disaster. “If you build in the area of a river, then you are impeding on the natural drainage pattern and the flow of the rivers, and similarly, if you have a gully [where garbage is improperly disposed], then certainly if the gully overflows, you would want a buffer zone, which would allow for the overflow of the water to go comfortably without causing any problems”, he explains.
The Deputy Director General concludes that Jamaicans needed to become “a people who develop a culture of risk management and a culture of response where we are waiting until a disaster happens then we are always mopping up. We need to be a people who are more proactive in taking the necessary steps to reduce the level of impact so we can recover faster.”
He further encourages persons who might have queries about the preventative measures to take in the event of a natural disaster to contact a public education officer at the ODPEM head or regional offices, or by visiting the agency’s website at www.odpem.org.jm.