March 14, 2021
… an ounce of prevention
In the latter half of May it seemed there was just too much to think about. The COVID lockdowns and curfews continued. A moderate earthquake near Mavis Bank rattled dishes in Kingston. Tropical Storm Arthur blew up south of Florida, getting a big jump on the hurricane season, and Bertha followed ten days later.
The last of the big-name forecasts, from NOAA’s National Hurricane Center, confirmed the prediction that the Caribbean will see above-average tropical storm activity in 2020 without the usual protection of an El Nino in the eastern Pacific or a heavy blanket of Saharan dust across the Atlantic. And a new study, part of the Proceedings of the (US) National Academy of Sciences, concluded that climate change isn’t producing more storms but it is making the bad ones worse.
Jamaica hasn’t had a direct hit or even a close brush with a tropical storm since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, though the outer rain bands of Matthew did cause some flooding in 2016. It’s easy to dismiss hurricane preparation as a waste of time and effort when we have other things on our minds. Not so. This is a year when careful and thorough preparation can save a lot of lives and property if a hurricane comes, and can leave us with some useful advantages even if it doesn’t.
Parish disaster coordinators know that a lot of their residents need to seek shelter but there is a poor response to evacuation orders. People don’t want to leave their homes and go to shelters, either because they think they don’t need to or because they’re afraid of being robbed. This year, COVID-19 presents some extra challenges.
Disaster managers will be dealing with the fear that hurricane shelters could turn into plague pits. To avoid this, Dr. Barbara Carby, head of UWI’s Disaster Risk Reduction Centre, outlined measures that need to be in place before a storm arrives:
- Extra training and high-quality personal protective equipment for response teams doing rescue work;
- Additional shelter space with proper toilet facilities, to avoid crowding;
- Extra supplies of water and disinfecting materials to allow proper sanitation;
- Supplies of masks and gloves for evacuees who don’t bring their own;
Dr. Carby also pointed out that the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency will need a plan for dealing with humanitarian aid – both workers and goods — coming from abroad after a storm. Ideally, the rules should be the same throughout the Caribbean, and must be communicated to humanitarian agencies like the Red Cross well in advance.
Water supply management is another key area where hurricane preparation now could bring big dividends later. Historically Jamaica has depended on the storm season for the surplus rainfall that refilled both man-made and natural reservoirs for use in the dry months to come. There has been no real storm season for several years. Human foolishness – deforestation, poor agricultural practices, industrial pollution and reckless development – has left the seasonal rainfall with nowhere useful to go. The result is a cycle of flood and drought that’s becoming increasingly destructive.
We can do better. We can start by repairing and refurbishing the rainwater harvesting facilities we have, and building more. We can come down very hard on the industrial polluters that have poisoned neighbouring water supplies for decades. We can make sure that farm fields are properly hedged and terraced to contain runoff, and we can stop draining and dumping up wetlands and flood plains.
Finally, the managers of marine protected areas on both coasts have seen some welcome sights lately – more fish and cleaner water, mostly because there are fewer people. Are these managers happy? No. They know that dry weather has allowed a load of trash and household waste to pile up in drains and gullies, waiting for the first hard rain to wash it into the sea.
We can do better. Cleaning these waterways now will preserve the gains we’ve made in marine life and water quality. We may also avoid the damaging floods that result when a blocked drain or gully overflows into city streets. At some point, the visitors will return. With a bit of preparation, we can welcome them to a cleaner, safer place.