Is the Guyana Civil Defence Commission asleep?

The Hurricane season in 2017 has seen the rise of three hurricanes of epic proportions – Harvey, Irma, and Jose – and while Hurricane Harvey mainly caused widespread flooding in Texas, it was Hurricane Irma that hit the islands of the Caribbean Sea the hardest.

Irma caused the near total obliteration of all standing structures in the tiny island of Barbuda and one reported death, then wreaked further devastation and loss of lives in the British Virgin Islands, St Martin, Cuba, Turks and Caicos Islands, and the US Virgin Islands. All told, this storm has been responsible for a total of 38 reported deaths in the Caribbean, at least one of whom was a Guyanese residing in the BVI.

While the Caribbean islands are no strangers to hurricanes, and relief efforts are usually well organised, the devastation appears more pronounced this time around. Within days of the destruction to the tiny island of Barbuda, Prime Minister Gaston Browne called for the total evacuation of the island, describing it as “barely habitable” even as Hurricane Jose lurked in waiting. The British Virgin Islands also declared a state of emergency and the evacuation of non-residents was actively encouraged. Billionaire resident Sir Richard Branson writing in his blog said that the islands of the BVI are “isolated from outside help. The entire country is unable to function properly, with tens of thousands of people having lost their homes and livelihoods.”

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma particularly, the Caribbean islands are reeling from the damage and displacement of peoples that have occurred. The US State Department has issued advisories to its citizens, and the Financial Times reports that international accounting and law firms are also evacuating their employees from the BVI, an archipelago which has long served as an offshore financial and business centre with companies incorporated there controlling over US$1.5 trillion in assets.

As countries (and even companies) rally to offer assistance and to look into the well-being of their citizens in the hurricane ravaged islands, the response of the Government of Guyana to this tragedy has been put under sharp scrutiny in the aftermath of the storm. On Monday, September 11, the Guyana Government pledged an “initial” sum of US$50,000 to aid relief efforts via the Caricom regional mechanism pending the outcome of a “Needs Assessment.”

According to a release from the Ministry of the Presidency, Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo is to Head a Ministerial Task Force overseeing the Civil Defence Commission’s (CDC) National Risk Reduction Platform. The Prime Minister himself is quoted as saying “We are concerned about our nationals in these Caribbean territories ravaged by Hurricane Irma…We will work to render assistance to Guyanese nationals in Caribbean countries and generally to the affected states themselves. We want to be able to have an inventory of students, who are on scholarships in Cuba and in other parts of the Caribbean and to see to it that such information is provided to their families.”

The Prime Minister’s statement quoted above makes it very clear that the Government of Guyana is ill-prepared to assist its citizens in the hurricane ravaged Caribbean islands. At the high level ministerial meeting there seems to have been no briefing of the President, Prime Minister and other ministers of the government present by members of the CDC and other technical personnel who must have been following the storm and prepping for such an emergency as currently exists. These storms were forecast well in advance and predicted to be of unprecedented power and destructive capacity. Yet the Prime Minister did not seem to have a ready inventory of students in Cuba based on his statements, nor are we aware that any advisories were dispatched before the storm.

With respect to advisories issued after the hurricane, none seemed directed at the students in Cuba or to citizens in other islands. There should be clear advisories directed at all Guyanese citizens in the hurricane affected islands giving very specific and pertinent information regarding methods of contacting Guyanese authorities in these states and detailing what assistance is available immediately and how this might be accessed.

To simply bemoan the situation as exists with respect to communication is not at all acceptable. Advisories must be published and instructions must be given to affected citizens in all available media. There is a dearth of information from the Government of Guyana that provides in plain words a contact person, contact number, nature of assistance available, and the like. Guyana’s Honorary Consul in French Guiana, Travis Tracey-Lecant has given only an email address whereby person with relatives on the French side of St Martin may contact her with detailed personal information about their relatives in hope of a response. Apart from not giving any telephone numbers, which suggest that the matter is not considered particularly urgent, once again there were no instructions or information aimed at those who actually need it, that is, those Guyanese stranded and in need of assistance on the several islands.

Saying that there is a plan to set up a web portal to disseminate information is practically useless as good intentions are meaningless without effective action. The US State Department webpage has devoted a page on its website to updates, travel advisories, and evacuation flight schedules that the Government of Guyana can take a guide from as to what information it should make available. This page is being constantly updated with the newest available information.

The Guyana CDC often appears asleep in between disasters and only starts the tortuous process of mobilization too long after the disaster has already struck. In this digital age of information there is no excuse for not being prepared.

The Government of Guyana needs to have feet on the ground in the affected islands and to set up a help desk to locate, inform and actively assist Guyanese in whatever ways are necessary in recovering from this disaster, even if this includes relocating such persons to Guyana as soon as possible.

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