Disasters- Are we prepared?

 

As a Small Island Developing State (SIDS), Trinidad and Tobago has distinct physical and demographic characteristics that contribute to its vulnerability to natural disasters. Of particular concern is the high concentration of population, infrastructure and industry within the coastal zone.  In terms, of disaster preparedness, the key area of vulnerability in the coastal zone is flooding as a result of severe storm surges and prolonged rainfall. Added to this are threats of flooding in areas of increasing development and inadequate storm water management systems. The potential threat of earthquakes, industrial accidents and even biological hazards while less likely should also be considered and planned for.

It is therefore imperative that our nation becomes more diligent in addressing our state of disaster preparedness.  The Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) has a wealth of information regarding preparation for disasters.  They are the custodians of maps and other data regarding vulnerable areas, and their emergency management staff is trained to formulate and implement emergency procedures.  The ODPM has also been responsible for the establishment of shelters, mostly public schools, equipped with supplies for the citizenry and signage outlining evacuation routes. While these measures are certainly a step in the right direction, there is serious doubt as to whether we are sufficiently prepared to cope with the effects of a disaster.

The true test of preparedness occurs when disaster strikes and the recent spate of flooding in the North West was a legitimate test of our capacity to address a natural disaster.  There are many accounts of the events, but it is evident that the existing response to disasters is insufficient.  Noteworthy is the inherent delays in emergency response as our road network does not lend itself to easy maneuverability due to restricted entrance and  exit points, especially where settlements have sprung upon along a road corridor.  The preference for cul-de-sacs and dead ends in our neighbourhoods may provide privacy, but in times of disaster it is difficult for emergency responders to access residents in need.  Re-examination of our settlement patterns is needed to ensure that communities are not cut off from relief and supplies post disaster.

Our nation’s largest settlements are in coastal or low-lying areas.  These areas are prime for development but in terms of storm management, these areas are also vulnerable, danger zones.  Most homes in these coastal or low-lying areas are built at ground level increasing the chances of becoming inundated with water.  But the citizenry is unaware of the variety of housing options available to them to decrease the impacts of flooding on their property and loss of lives.

Increased development also increases the strain on the flood management infrastructure.  New developments tend to utilize the existing drainage system without extensive analysis of the capacity of the system.  Based on the rate of development, drains that were constructed for projected periods of time become obsolete in a few years. Flood plains, wetlands and swamps serve as catchments for water during rainfall and are prone to flooding. When a community is built in the any of the aforementioned areas, the likelihood of instances of disaster damage increases.  Developers must be mandated to capture and store water before it is released into our waterways and the restoration of key environments will reduce the need for flood response by reducing the incidences and severity of flooding.

These issues highlight the need for collaboration amongst the various government agencies, local government representatives and community stakeholders in the discussion and management of disaster preparedness, as a multi-sectorial approach is required. Disaster preparedness should not be the sole responsibility of the ODPM.  The citizenry also has to shoulder some responsibility for their safety.  However, it has been seen that persons often do not take the initiative in protecting their welfare.  The ODPM regularly sends out information, advisories and updates via its social media sites of Facebook and Twitter but fewer than 30,000 people subscribe to the pages.   Signage on the road, particularly those that are not applicable to daily driving routines are typically ignored. In terms of disaster preparedness, there is little or no interest until there is a disaster that impacts the individual either directly or indirectly.  People are less inclined to develop a plan for their household unless a very severe event is imminent.

 

Steps have been made in the right direction, but our nation is not fully prepared for a disaster.  A deeper sense of awareness for personal safety must be encouraged among our citizenry.  More importantly development must be properly regulated, domestic waste practices must be improved to prevent clogging of watercourses.  Continued collaboration among response agencies accompanied by regular intra and inter agency exercises is also critical for the success of disaster preparedness in Trinidad and Tobago.  Methods for developing resilience towards future events must be put in place.

 

This article was written by Ms. Carianne Johnson, Member of the Trinidad and Tobago Society of Planners

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