Speak with any disaster manager in any of the 16 member states of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency (CDERA) and the story will be the same - these hurricanes were eye-opening school teachers that left substantive home work to be done by the Caribbean if it is to pass the next test of natural disasters - no matter what the origin.
This is no more evident than in Grenada, where the Director of the National Disaster Management Agency (NaDMA), Mr Sylvan McIntyre, said not only have they learnt the lessons and did their homework but they had an early opportunity, through Hurricane Emily in July, to test their level of preparedness. How did they score? About 70 per cent overall, said McIntyre. Now they can correct the errors and strive for a 100 per cent next time around.
It was September 7, 2004 when Hurricane Ivan side-stepped Barbados and targeted Grenada. He touched down with winds of 120 miles per hour and gusts significantly higher. The capital was devastated as well as rural areas and the sister islands of Carriacou and Petit Martinique were significantly damaged. Only one of every ten roof remained intact. The world rushed to the aid of the Spice Isle, helping Grenadians to get up, brush off, and go back to work.
So, one year later what new disaster preparedness methods and strategies have been created to help Grenada deal with another Ivan? There were some changes says McIntyre, but he doesn't refer to them as anything "new" and that is because all the plans and programmes already exist - on paper - some needed to be enhanced, others revised and implemented.
"After Ivan a lot of that was done. We have, basically, refocused. Ivan has taught us some lessons, we have learnt them and we have implemented them. There were a number of challenges which came out of Ivan which we speedily went to address. One is communications," McIntyre said.
The NaDMA head said communications was a "major deficiency". When Ivan struck there was not the capability of NaDMA, then known as NERO (National Emergency Relief Organisation), to speak with the players in the emergency Services, police, fire service, ambulances, Government Ministers, and service organisations.
This has been corrected through the assistance of WRB Enterprises Inc, an American parent company of the Grenada Electricity Services. WRB provided resources through CDERA that assisted in the acquisition of equipment to connect all the critical players in an emergency and there have since been two national simulation exercises, one regional exercise known as Region Rap which is conducted by CDERA, and then the test of Hurricane Emily in July. The exercises highlighted some weakness including simple matters as compatibility of HF and VHF and positioning of antennae.
In addition, understanding of the national disaster plan by all groups from the Government to the non-governmental organisation, has improved.
"The lack of exercise of the national plan led to the break down of the other form of communication, people on the other end did not know who they needed to talk to and how to initiate the process. I think now it is very transparent, people now understand where the Emergency Operations Center will be, who is supposed to be in there, who is suppose to coordinate and who is to talk to whom. I think that the lack of having not exercised the national plan adequately prior to the impact of Ivan could have led to some breakdown. The Emily experience confirmed that we are definitely making some progress," said McIntyre.
However, McIntyre laments that the media have not informed NaDMA about their contingency planning for emergency broadcasting during and after the event. The capability to communicate vital information during or after an event to a mass audience remains a challenge.
A second challenge was coordination of the response effort.
"This gave us a headache. Some people attributed lack of proper coordination it to the magnitude of the impact. Yes that was one reason but I think that agencies did not quite understand their role. Today, I think they understand it much better and that is not just coordination among local agencies but also relate to regional and international agencies coming in to render assistance. We have made some strides in this area towards having those agencies understand, respect, and plug into the national mechanism so that the coordination of response can be very effective.
Aiding the process of coordination, McIntyre said that Grenada has adopted a National Integrated Relief Policy which was created with the assistance of CDERA and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and which is now a model policy that will be adapted throughout the Caribbean.
"There was a lack of relief policy to drive these things and we have just adapted a national integrated relief policy. It speaks to how the process of relief who go through, then there is a relief plan that speaks to who will enact the plan and then the procedure which gives a walk-through of how it is should be done. It is a model integrated relief programme that Grenada has received through CDERA and the CIDA-Ivan project."
A third challenge was the capacity of NaDMA to respond adequately to a disaster. Specifically a lack of technical personnel but this situation is being rectified. Before Ivan, the work load fell on a few people. The sub-committees which comprised qualified and technical personnel were not functioning effectively and this was one of the major weaknesses.
"We have added new staff to the agency, we have had consultants onboard, we have had a contingency planning specialist, a community disaster preparedness specialist, and an information specialist. For Emily's impact the information before, during, and after was much better it is one of the things by which we can measure our improvement." These were provided through CDERA with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency.
One of the major problems after Ivan was that relief supplies left NaDMA for the communities but it did not reach everyone in the community and this highlighted a major weakness in the community structure. Through the work of the community preparedness specialist each district has a structure installed with a plan to reach every member of the community.
"This really worked well for us during Emily and it was the hallmark of the entire process to show that it can work to reach all the people in the community."
As a common thread of all cycles of national preparedness is the national plans and policies which have been on the books for many years but rarely exercised prior to Ivan. McIntyre attributes this to lack of commitment by the players that might have come about because it was decades since Grenada suffered a major disaster. Today, everyone is interested, committed, and keen. They have become familiar with the plans and understand what roles they have to play when disaster strikes.
The question is: "What happens in the next 15 or 20 years, should there be no disasters? Will complacency set in it?"
"I do not think this generation will see that gross level of complacency by a nation and it is our responsibility as disaster managers to create innovative ways of keeping people interested in what they do ... once we emphasize disaster preparedness at the family level it will spill out to the national level and once we keep that at the forefront it is an incentive to keep people involved."
A fifth challenge was inadequate tools and equipment to get the job done. That has changed with the acquisition of Search and Rescue equipment provided through CDERAs Search and Rescue Project with funding from the Government of Japan.
With the assistance of many local, regional, and international donors, the Spice Isle has been able to identify the problems and correct the problems. It has also been given a rare opportunity to test their progress when Hurricane Emily came along. According to McInytre's score card, he gave the agency 70 per cent marks for its state of preparedness and readiness - significantly higher than before Ivan - but still not good enough.
"There is definitely more awareness on the ground but I am not at the point where I can say that I am satisfied that Grenadians have accepted that disaster management is everybody's business but we are seeing more awareness in that regard and we have to move with the tide and use the experience that is provided for us," said McIntyre.
The work of the Caribbean Hazard Mitigation Capacity Building Programme being executed by CDERA and the Organisation of American States has borne fruit in Grenada where the Government has endorsed a National Hazard Mitigation Policy and translating it into a plan to be implemented in the Spice Isle. While preparedness is a more short term measure, mitigation is the longer term view which involved structural (such as building codes) and non-structural (such as zoning regulations) measures to reduce one's risk to a natural hazard. Together with the Caribbean Development Bank, CDERA has also been mapping the vulnerabilities of critical facilities to inform the redevelopment and reduction of the risk to vital services in Grenada.
Finally, Hurricane Katrina's impact brought lessons for Grenada. Evacuation was one of those lessons.
"The region as a whole looked at evacuation but I must say that I was not clear on it especially in relation to the means to support evacuation, especially mandatory evacuation. As a nation and a region if we plan mandatory evacuation then we should provide some means and identify the means. The lack of that information leads to problems. Secondly, there can never be too much information, we have to keep giving information because you will always find people who say they have not heard or were not quite aware of what they should do."
The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency (CDERA) has been one of those regional entities working in Grenada. In fact, one of its mandates as an agency of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) is to establish and maintain on a sustainable basis, adequate disaster response capabilities among Participating States.
In its 14 years of existence CDERA has developed model policies and programmes in all spheres of disaster preparedness and management to assist its member states. In more recent times, at the turn of the 21st Century, CDERA spearheaded an effort among its stakeholders and partners to develop the Comprehensive Disaster Management (CDM) Strategy which has been endorsed by Government of Latin America and the Caribbean. It teaches that disaster management must involve all cycles of the hazard (from preparedness to reconstruction), all sectors of the society (each must design and test their contingency plans) and all hazards (both natural and man-made).
Participating States therefore have the necessary planning tools at their fingertips, whether they are being implemented and tested at the local level to prepare countries adequately is another matter. This concern led CDERA and one of its partners - the Canadian International Development Agency - to take national disaster coordinators of the 16 Participating States of CDERA on a refreshers course in the British Virgin Islands in May 2005.
At the time, the assessment of the Coordinator of CDERA Jeremy Collymore, was that many Participating States were not taking preparedness planning as seriously as they should, given the hazardousness of the environment in which the Caribbean exist. He did not name the countries but he challenges them to take and implement lessons from the Hurricane Ivan experience.
"Even in many of these countries in which there is some commitment there are still issues related the implementation of response plans. Far too often, agreed and tested systems are sidelined for ad hoc interventions. It is important that we understand why this happens. Whether it is a result of dissatisfaction with outcomes of the agreed measures; the pace of action or competency issues or lack of awareness, is not clear," said Collymore.
More recently, at a training session for Public Information Officers of National Disaster Officers, the CDERA Coordinator lamented on the need for clear definition of role and responsibilities.
"We not only have to be concerned about the medium through which we communicate but also about what we do communicate. Indeed, I wish to suggest that poor crisis communication and information management may be as devastating as the impacting event. In small island tourism dependent states this is even more critical. It has deep-rooted implications for economic survival. What this requires, therefore, is a national framework within which varying levels of crisis communications can be managed. This include a distinct role for political leadership, vis-à-vis those of the event managers. Recent events in the Caribbean have suggested the need for a definition of that delicate balance between political visibility and leadership in the event and the direction of response operations. The lines can easily become merged."
Since Hurricane Ivan, CDERA has teamed with the Canadian International Development Agency to specifically identify and rectify the challenges experienced by the region and Grenada.
The work has focused on emergency communications, equipment, and training; development of a Model Integrated Relief Programme; Community Disaster Preparedness Planning; Contingency Planning; Management of Information in Emergencies; and Reconstruction Techniques.
The Regional Coordination Plan (RCP) for the 16 CDERA Participating States has been upgraded and enhanced to provide communication, coordination, and response prior to, during, and after a disaster.
This plan involved the establishment of a Regional Coordination Centre (RCC) which is located in Barbados and being equipped with modern communications equipment and designed to provide around the clock coverage of disaster events in CDERAs member states. There was opportunity to test this system during Hurricanes Dennis and Emily this year and CDERA staff has given it thumbs up.
A Regional Communication Plan is also part of the bigger plan. This involved the review of all the communications equipment and procedures in member states with a view to upgrading the equipment and training operators in the most proficient use. A communications operator's syllabus is being developed.
A Regional Model Integrated Relief Programme (MIRP) has been developed for adaptation by all CDERA member states. It was unveiled in August during national and regional workshops in Grenada. With this in place, many of the problems of coordination of receipt and distribution of relief aids last year will be rectified.
Hurricane Ivan has brought new vigour to disaster preparedness and education at all levels of society. One year later, the plans, policies, tools, and techniques have been taken off the shelf, dusted off, revised and improved. Gaps have been plugged. What's now left is for the Grenada model to be implemented in more Caribbean states - the exercising of the national plans and ensuring that all players understand their role. Some states have done this, others have not.
The true test of the value of these plans will be the next disaster.
Public Education and Information Unit
Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency
Building #1, Manor Lodge
Lodge Hill, St Michael
Tel (246) 425-0386