By Gamal Newry
We will begin this discussion back in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina, considering we are still reeling from the impact of Sandy here in the Bahamas.
If the “American government would have responded like Wal-Mart has responded, we wouldn’t be in this crisis,” said Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish president, Aaron Broussard, paraphrasing Sheriff Harry Lee during an interview on ‘Meet the Press’ in October 2005
The Washington Post, in its September 6, 2005, edition, said: “Over the next few days [beginning two days after the hurricane hit], Wal-Mart’s response to Katrina was an unrivalled $20 million in cash donations, 1,500 truckloads of free merchandise, food for 100,000 meals.”
Move forward to August 2010. With the Copiap� mining accident, also known as the ‘Chilean mining accident’, when the Chilean government needed to get a drill from Berlin, Pennsylvania, to the San Jose mine where 33 miners were trapped, it turned to UPS.
Enter Cat Island with Hurricane Irene in August 2011, where the first word to come out of a devastated location was from a private business owner. These are just a few of the many examples which, in my opinion, set the stage for improving on national efforts - when it comes to hurricane and emergency management - that engage more readily the private sector.
Emergency management speaks to awareness training, preparedness response and recovery for potentially loss-causing, disruptive events. From fires to bomb threats to severe weather conditions, good business demands your ability to manage the risk of the event occurring. What makes a hurricane so complex is the fact that is a naturally-occurring event that combines several forces of nature, namely strong winds, sea surges, and rain.
Nevertheless, unlike an earthquake and tsunami, which are very, very sudden and unpredictable events, a hurricane is for the most part predictable and announced at least several hours in advance. This factor can greatly help in reducing the loss of life, movable property and fortifying fixed assets to reduce loss potential and damage.
Then why does it appear that, after several hundred years of knowledge, we in the Bahamas seem so unprepared and uncoordinated?
As I monitored the response to Sandy, I was troubled because of the limited availability of information. On one hand, the reporting of conditions on its own is not within itself good information. The various news outlets had no solutions or answers; they were mere conduits that, from what I could hear, provided no help. During such events of this type, all radio, television stations and other news sources should be made to tie into one source periodically during the event so that the dissemination of information is consistent and constant.
The typical practice of simply giving alerts without adequate interpretation and explanation should be rectified. For example, I listened as a caller from Abaco asked a radio host for the estimated time of departure of Sandy. The reply was uninformed and uncertain, but nevertheless they proceeded to give the caller information. After hanging up, the host suddenly realised that there was available access to a representative from the Met Office, who provided a clear answer that was at least 24 hours past the time previously stated to the caller.
Maybe it is just me and I stand to be corrected, but I am unable to find the National Emergency Management Agency online. This is not to say it is not there, but certainly it is a hard find and should not be as such. Amazingly, we are still being advised of the various ‘Hurricane Shelters’, giving one the choice of evacuation, without properly explaining the ramifications of not evacuating your home. Do we really understand the difficulty and danger attempting to get to a ‘shelter’ during a storm, and what makes a shelter a ‘shelter’? Has this building been tested, fortified and outfitted as such.
While doing my best to keep in touch with friends and family in the Family Islands, on several occasions it was mentioned that the Bahamas is not Nassau and they felt neglected. Understandably, the stress of the time contributed to these statements. However, I can say this now: Really, Nassau is very different than the Family Islands. This is a reality that should not be ignored but embraced, so that proper planning can be done. What should a national plan include? Well, here is my opinionated plan.
First, the plan should be developed to include the major stakeholders from the private and public sectors. For example, is the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation represented on NEMA?
This is what ‘The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina, Lessons Learned’ said on Chapter 5, Page 52: “Effective incident management of catastrophic events requires coordination of a wide range of organisations and activities, public and private. Under the current response framework, the Federal government merely “coordinates” resources to meet the needs of local and state governments based upon their requests for assistance.
“Pursuant to the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the National Response Plan (NRP), Federal and state agencies build their command and coordination structures to support the local command and coordination structures during an emergency. Yet this framework does not address the conditions of a catastrophic event with large scale competing needs, insufficient resources, and the absence of functioning local governments. These limitations proved to be major inhibitors to the effective marshalling of Federal, state and local resources to respond to Katrina.”
Essentially, a National Enterprise Risk Management System is a comprehensive approach to prevention, protection, preparedness, response mitigation and recovery from disruptive events. Does this mean toss what we have in place? Not at all. But it does mean, however, that we must reassess the inherent risk faced when managing an event like a hurricane and improving on what is in place.
It appears that the plan needs revamping, with better coordination and, just as important, better communication. I submit that I as citizen have a role to play in the execution of the plan, a very important role. Notwithstanding that I may be a part of the formal NEMA Team, nevertheless I am expected to take a certain type of action during emergencies, if only knowing who to call.
With that said, the plan should have a dedicated, year-round communications/public relations/marketing programme. Hurricane, or rather emergency, response should become a part of our vocabulary. We should take a page from the Japanese, who despite being in one of the most earthquake prone areas have taken extraordinary steps to prepare people for such events.
Emily Rauhala, in a March 11, 2011, Time World article, writes: “Emergency drills organised by public and private organisations work, among other things, to transport ‘stranded’ commuters from their offices to their homes. Japan’s tsunami warning service, set up in 1952, consists of 300 sensors around the archipelago, including 80 aquatic sensors that monitor seismic activit.”
Japan is an ideal example for us here in the Bahamas because they, too, are a country made up of several islands and have the task of reproducing central government several times over. On this point the citizenry must be educated on the fact that operating a country of this archipelagic type is a lot more complicated that it appears. Central government must, with limited resources, attempt to provide the same service to the Family Islands, a difficult task to say the least. On this notel can someone tell me why we do not have access to helicopters that can do more than fly overs, but bring resources quick time into impacted areas?
The predictability of hurricanes demands a more comprehensive readiness effort by the Government. Government must lead this effort, in my opinion, implementing new regulations regarding emergency situations and using the expertise available in the private sector.
It also demands the private sector to be more involved in the planning efforts as they relate to preparedness and response. Overall, there is room for much improvement across the board on all sides. Our situation is unique when compared to many of our neighbours in the region, so we must ensure that our efforts to manage this and other emergencies goes beyond the norm.
NB: Gamal Newry is the president of Preventative Measures, a loss prevention and asset protection training and consulting company, specialising in policy and procedure development, business security reviews and audits, and emergency and crisis management. Comments can be sent to PO Box N-3154, Nassau, Bahamas, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit us at www.preventativemeasures.org