Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

CARIBBEAN: Public Doubt Grows as Disaster Predictions Improve

Zadie Neufville

KINGSTON, Nov 24 2003 (IPS) - When Hurricane Gilbert made landfall in Jamaica on Sep. 11, 1988, Annmarie Morris was returning home from the shops. Until then she, like many of her friends, was doubtful the storm would ever come.

"We had so many threats and warnings but hurricanes always just passed us by," she recalls.

"I was terrified, the wind was tossing me, pushing me back, and I thought I wouldn’t get home."

Authorities across the Caribbean are worried about the trend revealed in Morris’s account – while they are getting better at predicting disaster, the public is less inclined to heed their warnings.

Officials worry that could mean a reverse in the significant decline in deaths and property damage from natural disasters in the past 30 years.

Early Warning Systems (EWS) have reduced disaster-related deaths by as much as 500 per cent in recent decades, Jeremy Collymore, coordinator of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency (CDERA), told a gathering of specialists in Bonn, Germany recently.

The 16 hurricanes that hit land between 1930 and 1960 claimed an average 498 lives each, compared to the average 91 persons killed by each of the 15 that made landfall in the 1990s.

When Martinique’s Mount Pelee erupted in 1902, close to 30,000 people died, while 32 have been killed since the Soufriere Hills volcano began erupting in Montserrat in 1992, he points out.

When Hurricane Charlie hit Jamaica 52 years ago, most Jamaican’s were caught off-guard. The result: 154 people killed, 2,000 injured, 50,000 homeless and 20-50 million dollars in damage.

Yet today, lack of public confidence in the same systems that are increasingly helping to save lives is a growing threat, added Collymore, suggesting part of the problem is the inability of forecasters to explain the systems’ limitations.

"Frequent shutdown and mobilisation with wide misses increases the confidence gap," he said, adding there is an "urgent need" to review the monitoring, alerting and warning mechanisms.

It is true that while the names of hurricanes Gilbert, George, Mitch, Iris and Michelle invoke terrible memories of devastation and lives lost, "they are not as many or as frequent to keep people’s memory fresh".

At least that is the opinion of 53-year-old domestic Carmen Johnson, and one shared by several officials across the region.

"Unfortunately, the farther you get from the last incident, the less people prepare and heed the warnings," adds Paul Saunders, deputy director general of Jamaica’s Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM).

School teacher Gloria Campbell, was a baby during Hurricane Charlie, also called "the 51 Storm". Both Johnson and Campbell recall a childhood of ritual hurricane preparation.

But as adults, neither woman prepares, "besides getting a little drinking water and some batteries". It is, they say, because they were not really affected by Gilbert.

"I sat on my veranda watching the rain and carried out my normal chores," Campbell told IPS.

"Next morning I went for a walk and saw the fallen trees and branches," adds the woman who lives in the City of Portmore, a collection of slab-roofed middle-income homes about 26 kms outside Kingston.

Many believe that better housing – a proliferation of concrete roofs fitted with aluminium shutters can now be seen across the island – relieves the need to batten down and prepare for the worst.

Experts also say some of today’s natural disasters result from human causes. Professor Norman Girvan, secretary-general of the Association of Caribbean States, says many are the result of a "deadly combination of population growth, sprawling and informal settlements and possibly the effects of global climate change".

Today, he says, flood damage is the greatest single source of loss of life and property in the Caribbean.

"The poor suffer the most, those living on hillsides and beside gullies and rivers and in low-lying areas with poor drainage," he wrote last month as he deliberated the effectiveness of early warning systems.

Physical planner Janet Hyde notes that despite their vulnerability, many people continue to live in areas that put them most at risk. "Planners have found that poor planning and land use are the cause of flooding," she says.

ODPEM’s Saunders says flooding is also caused by an increasing number of housing developments, which result in higher levels of water run-off; higher riverbeds because of silting (dirt washed into rivers and streams), poorly maintained drains and increasingly intense rainfalls.

In Jamaica, 381 have died as a result of major floods since 1933.

In many cases, says Morris, a nurse who also volunteers with the local disaster committee, people are reluctant to leave their homes and belongings.

"Many believe they can save their belongings if they stay," she explains.

ODPEM is focussing on public education as a way to boost people’s confidence about disaster warnings. "We find that communities respond better if they are involved in the organisation of the preparedness process," says Saunders.

The office has also improved its disaster management system by improving local rescue skills and increasing the number of volunteers it works with, the agency reports.

ODPEM works through local disaster management teams in communities across the island. They monitor local situations, issue warnings, staff shelters and help with relocation and rescue if necessary.

"There is a high level of disaster preparation by companies" in Jamaica, says Saunders with some satisfaction, but he is concerned that far too many individuals are unprepared for disasters like earthquakes, fires and chemical spills.

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