When Disaster Strikes

Panel discussion

The disaster preparedness panel was hugely anticipated in light of recent hurricanes that ravaged parts of the Caribbean. The panel of specialised professionals, was able to offer a wide range of perspectives on the central focus of the panel, disaster readiness. The panellists were Akil Nancoo, experienced meteorologist working with the Trinidad and Tobago Meteorological Service; Jerry David, Disaster Management Coordinator of the Diego Martin Regional Corporation; Professor Richard Robertson, geologist and volcanologist at the Seismic Unit; Shelly Bradshaw, Mitigation Manager at the Office of Disaster Preparedness Management (ODPM); and Crystal Fortwangler, visiting filmmaker and director of It Ain’t Easy Being Green (also screened at this year’s Green Screen festival).

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The discussion began after a series of jaw-dropping pictures showing the effects of heavy rainfall and flooding in Trinidad and Tobago. Mr David gave the historical context and insight into how development, particularly in the Diego Martin region, has led to improper land use, the negative impact of which we see and feel today.  He highlighted that while the Diego Martin Regional Corporation insists on training residents to respond in times of disaster, many in the community do not take advantage of such opportunities.

Ms Fortwangler’s background in environmental anthropology and environmental justice led her to support Mr David’s initiatives to ensure that residents are well prepared and able to assist in times of need.  She spoke briefly of the issue of social justice following a natural disaster by stating, “Who is giving the money and the resources and what are the consequences of this deal? There is a social impact due to this vulnerability.” This drove home the point that, as small islands, we must carefully consider our allies, and the terms of our alliances, since the help required after a major disaster tends to leave us bound to our financiers.

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Given the population’s negative view of the ODPM in recent times, Ms Bradshaw started by explaining that the ODPM is a coordinating entity and is not the organisation to offer all the assistance in the event of a natural disaster. She identified the organisation’s lack of resources and, like most of the other panellists, citizens’ complacent attitude as major challenges. In my opinion, the role of the ODPM was well explained but remained unclear and conflicting when compared to what actually happens. I was hoping for a much deeper discussion in this regard.

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Robertson provided a different perspective when he stated that the phrase ‘natural disaster’ should be interchanged with ‘natural phenomenon’. He specified that they occur regardless of what we do and believes we should do all we can to sensitise the public on their human and environmental impact in order to reduce the damage when they do happen. It was worrying to be reminded that preparation for a natural disaster must take place many months in advance, for while newer buildings are made to withstand earthquakes and proper drainage is constructed in newer communities, it is clear that much of our current infrastructure requires upgrading.

The comments on inadequate infrastructure, lack of resources and a complacent population were enough to prove that we are not ready for natural disasters. Using a brochure on disaster preparedness distributed by the ODPM, Mr David asked the audience if we had enough drinking water stored and had placed important documents in secure packaging. The tone of the murmurs coming from the audience suggested that many of us were not prepared. He then summed up the discussion of the panel when he stated, “Don’t ask if Trinidad is ready. Ask if you are ready.”

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