The 8.9 Richter earthquake in Japan, spawning a major tsunami which swept across the Pacific Ocean, brings our state of disaster preparedness temporarily under review again.
We say “temporarily” because as the news of the Pacific disaster fades from the TV screens and the front pages, our concerns will likewise fade away as we return to that false state of bliss: that God is a Trini, and nothing so terrible as a disaster will ever be allowed to befall us. We should, as an aspiring first world country and society, dispel that ridiculous superstition from everyone’s mind, and begin to address the fact that one day, any day, a major natural disaster could strike us. And we must address this probability by developing, and announcing, and rehearsing a series of disaster mitigation and recovery policies which every citizen will know.
As our Meteorological Services and our Seismic Research Unit continually remind us, Trinidad and Tobago is highly vulnerable to cataclysmic earthquakes, and therefore tsunamis to hurricanes and to extreme rainfall events, which may or may not be associated with hurricanes.
As far as we know, and we are being generous here, no disaster preparedness, mitigation or recovery plan has ever been announced to the population. Clearly this means that no disaster plans are in existence, for, cloistered as they must be if they exist, they can serve no benefit to a population whose disaster plans consist of the na?ve superstition that God will protect us.
In 2005, following a small bomb blast in Port-of-Spain, in which one person was injured, the city’s population, driven by fear and rumour, created total gridlock along every road out of the city, and all through the city. The then government, reacting to the situation, announced that a Disaster Evacuation Plan for the City would be developed and announced. Six years, and a few rain and flood scares have passed, and the gridlock out of the City has been observed several times, with commuters walking, shoes in hand, through flooded streets, to exit our capital city. But the Evacuation Plan remains unfinished and un-presented. In 2009, then Minister of Works Colm Imbert announced, following flooding caused by a normal rainfall event, that the Plan was almost ready, merely in need of some “fine-tuning”.
Possibly the plan was, like documents in another ministry, “removed” at the change of Government in 2010? Certainly we have not heard Mr Warner, nor the incoming Minister of National Security (under whom the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management falls), claim to have seen this plan waiting to be fine-tuned. While acknowledging that the Government currently has its hands full on all fronts, we urge them to locate, update and fine-tune the Disaster Plan for Trinidad and Tobago as a matter of critical urgency. Should, God forbid, disaster strike us (and let us acknowledge that despite our penchant for hyperbole, we have never seen anything close to a national disaster), and we are as unprepared as we are today, it will be the government of the day which will take the blame.
Our Disaster Plan must include preventative upgrades of infrastructure and buildings, early warning systems where applicable, evacuation and emergency care routes, rescue, first aid, hospitalisation and provision of shelter, food and water, restoration of public utilities, and recovery and rebuilding.
We call upon the Government to get a Draft Plan into the public domain, for discussion and agreement.