Mon | Aug 21, 2017

Editorial: A reminder from Erika

Published:Friday | September 4, 2015 | 9:00 AM

It has been, so far, a relatively mild Atlantic hurricane season. Only a handful of weather systems have graduated into storms and those that did mostly lost their energy well before they came close to land mass.

Knowing the dangers posed by hurricanes and similar weather disturbances, we are thankful for that. But as Hurricane Erika, which passed through the Caribbean last week, should have reminded people, there is no place for complacency or the false sense of security into which Jamaica appears to have lapsed.

If nothing else, Erika, we hope, has jerked us into a renewed focus on disaster planning and mitigation. The island of Dominica, in the Eastern Caribbean, which, like Jamaica, is a member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), provides an example of why we should.

Erika did not directly hit Dominica, a country of 290 square miles and 72,000 people. It passed around 90 miles to the north of the island, heading north-northwest, a track that also kept it north of Jamaica and largely, it appeared, out of the consciousness of Jamaicans, who, in the face of a long drought, welcomed the few showers it caused.

But in a few hours, Erika dumped thousands of tons of water on Dominica, swelling rivers and causing floods and landslides. Homes and other infrastructure were destroyed or damaged. At least 20 people were killed and 50 others were reported missing.

Having lagged for years, Dominica's economy was only recently showing signs of recovery. Now, the country's prime minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, said they have been set back at least two decades.

"We have, in essence, to rebuild Dominica," he lamented. In Haiti, at least nine persons died becauseof the storm's floods. Puerto Rico suffered infrastructural damage.

All, or any of this, could easily have been Jamaica. Indeed, it has happened before, even if not on the relative scale experienced by Dominica, whose destruction was not because of wind damage, but from the water associated with the storm - as has been the case with several recent weather events in Jamaica.

A major cause of these outcomes in Jamaica is the failure of land-use planning and management and/or regulatory enforcement. For instance, lots of people build in river courses or on their banks; they ignore the guidelines for setbacks on gullies; and they ravage watersheds for mansions, settlements and farms. Mostly, there are laws against such things, which are not enforced.

The danger now is that climate-change events are likely to grow increasingly unpredictable and extreme, demanding greater care in the management of the environment, so as to protect the physical environment and economic infrastructure, as well as to save lives. In Jamaica, it will be difficult to undo much of what has already gone bad, but the authorities can prevent its exacerbation by beginning to enforce the laws that are already in their possession.

Further, there have to be new approaches to policy development and economic planning, to include disaster-risk management and mitigation. Downside risks from catastrophes must be part of the matrix when projects are being considered. In this regard, an institution like the Disaster Risk Reduction Centre at the University of the West Indies, Mona, should have increasingly weighty relevance to policy planners in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean.