A debt of gratitude is owed to all those here and abroad who have risen up to provide relief to the hurricane-stricken islands of the Caribbean, whether it be the first responders, householders gathering clothing and batteries, the business community mobilising food and building materials, institutions providing cash or friendly governments availing inter-island transport. Much more remains to be done and it is hoped that there will be no letup while efforts are made to restore a semblance of order before facing the arduous task of rebuilding.
If the region aspires to oneness, then for CARICOM in particular, that must manifest itself in the ability to overcome physical separateness at times of enormous tragedy as when hurricanes Irma and Maria smote the Caribbean this month. Leaving aside for the moment that these were two Category Five blitzes, it is tragic that for an area that is exposed to the threat and reality of terrifying cyclones each year that when a disaster does occur the regional response is slow, disorganised, piecemeal and beggarly. Where is the finely honed machine born of decades of annual trial runs? It doesn’t exist. As important and crucial as the individual responses have been this year they don’t let off CARICOM and the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) from being held accountable for the lethargic response.
At no point of Irma’s savaging of Barbuda and Tortola or Maria’s brutal assault on Dominica was there evidence of any overall relief plan or operation kicking in immediately. The respective prime ministers in the cases of Barbuda and Dominica tried their best in the shell-shocking circumstances to fathom the enormity of the disaster that had befallen them followed by the perfunctory, belated visits of CARICOM officials and others to gauge the scale of the tragedy and then to move at their usual pace to provide whatever succour they were able to muster. That is not a plan but abdication and reactiveness.
Dominica was cut off for virtually two days from the outside world. No one came to its immediate rescue or those who were trapped in life-threatening circumstances. Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago did manage to send coast guard vessels on their own initiative with relief supplies. When the Dominican PM Roosevelt Skerrit appealed for helicopter aid to get to villages cut off from the rest of the ravaged island, it was the French government that first offered a chopper.
As the emergency relief organisation in the region, CDEMA clearly has an appropriately defined mandate but no properly articulated and resourced plan. It is no easy challenge having to marshal operations across the Caribbean Sea and beyond and initiate operations in several theatres at the same time. It requires military-type planning and the resources. A radical transformation is needed in the planning for these disasters and it has to start immediately among the Heads of Government and then be entrusted to CDEMA. It should start from the development of the next low pressure system or tropical storm. Considering the devastation and death toll in the Caribbean from Irma and Maria it can never be too early to start.
There should be an immediate meeting of CARICOM Heads or at least the Bureau of Heads and the Secretary General on a revamped emergency relief system. There has to be a much more robust and interactive relationship between CDEMA and the civil defence authorities in each country and the associate territories. At the first sign of a dangerous weather system, whether using the American or European forecasting models, relief officials have to plot the worst case scenarios and act immediately. Let’s say for instance if Montserrat was in the sights of a Category Four or Five hit, then considering that the notice period could be as short as Dominica had last week, there would have to be mandatory evacuations to shelters or safer ground as is routinely and efficiently done by Cuba.
Once the severe weather had passed, the relief operation should kick in within hours not days, and be headquartered in the nearest unaffected territory. A revamped system would require communications systems such as satellite phones being immediately available to CDEMA and the civil authorities considering the likely devastation of mobile networks. CDEMA would then interface with the national, law enforcement and health authorities to pave the way for their intervention.
Under the new system, relief supplies such as water, batteries, tarpaulins, first aid kits and ready-to-eat meals would have been prepositioned on all vulnerable islands for immediate use. Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname could be natural hubs for the storage of supplies and the staging grounds for relief operations.
Transportation assets in the region available to governments, whether planes, helicopters or fast boats, would have to be inventorised for immediate summoning by CDEMA if necessary, obviating instances like the unavailability of air transport for Guyana’s relief supplies to Dominica. If added security personnel were needed to support local forces, then under the Regional Security System, assistance could be provided. Depending on the particular needs of a stricken island, CDEMA would then mobilise relief in a precise way as opposed to each country sending what it wants. For example on its own website CDEMA points out that Dominica currently needs 4,813 cases of 24 half-litre bottles of water per day. How is this vital need and a requirement for 14,000 tarpaulins being met?
Importantly, CDEMA would have to be able to handle two or even three such events at the same time. It will be extremely difficult to implement such a system. It must however be done and it must start first with the CARICOM Heads. They can’t have been comfortable watching the devastation on Barbuda, Tortola, St Martin/Maarten, the USVI and Dominica and thinking that they have a workable relief system. They don’t. They must begin planning a largescale mock exercise in a vulnerable arena like Haiti to test their planning and capacity.
It is more than likely the case that climate change has pumped up these hurricane systems beyond the reasonable capabilities of poor regions like CARICOM. That however is no consolation or excuse not to act. These supercharged hurricanes have sent their own message to the Trump administration on its irresponsible abandoning of the Paris climate change accord. At the end of this season, when the death and devastation of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria are totalled up, it may well be the costliest month in the history of such record keeping
CDEMA is presently organising a six-day conference in December at a Nassau beach resort. That would be a waste of time and money and so typical of the regional bureaucracy. It should take those resources and begin channelling them into serious work on a better plan for responding to regional emergencies.