Early warning systems are the most efficient way to save lives in disasters such as Hurricane Dean now rampaging across Mexico and need to be further enhanced at local levels, the United Nations body seeking to mitigate their impact said today.
"Early warning systems allow populations to evacuate ahead of time and take shelter in emergency and safer buildings," UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) Director Salvano Briceño stressed in a statement.
"They give Governments enough time to protect critical infrastructures such as power plants and water tanks which can create further disasters if they are not protected."
In Mexico, thousands of tourists were alerted in advance to evacuate the coastal area of the Yucatan peninsula and hundred of workers were removed from oil rigs in the Gulf to safer places. In Jamaica, electricity was turned off and shelters were organized all over the country ahead of Dean's approach. Schools and churches were converted into refuge shelters in Haiti.
"Communities are much better prepared than during hurricanes Ivan or Wilma which hit the same region [in 2004 and 2005]. People are learning from past experiences and are evacuating in time," Mr. Briceño said. "The fear of being looted is still a huge trauma that needs to be better addressed in community-based risk reduction programmes organized by local communities."
Early warning systems are available for almost all types of hazards and the ISDR has been pushing for a worldwide contingency network, especially following the deadly 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that was spawned by an undersea earthquake.
But warnings are much shorter for quakes and experts are currently working on developing systems based on one or two minutes time before a quake strikes. These two minutes will allow enough time to cut electricity power which often triggers fires.
"In the case of earthquakes, what is essential is that construction codes need to be enforced, in which communities need to be involved as well," Mr. Briceño said. "Awareness-raising at the community level is a top priority of risk reduction strategies."
Earthquakes like this month's disaster in Peru cannot be prevented but their impact can be reduced by improving the structural resilience of key facilities such as houses, schools and hospitals and educating people on how to protect cities and villages against quake threats.
The ISDR recommends that all Governments quickly implement the Hyogo Framework for Action endorsed in Kobe, Japan, by 168 States shortly after the 2004 tsunami, which offers a number of concrete steps to make communities and nations more resilient to any type of disaster, including storms, floods, droughts, heat and cold waves. The Framework is set to be implemented by 2015.