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Editorial | The Government must not recant

Published:Wednesday | October 5, 2016 | 10:00 AM

We expect there to be a fair bit of damage to property and infrastructure from the pummelling eastern Cuba will have taken from Hurricane Matthew. In most other places, as is evidenced by Haiti, the devastation would be far worse. Indeed, barring an extraordinary development, if there are deaths in Cuba, the toll will be relatively low.

We make these observations for we believe there are lessons for Jamaica to learn from Cuba in the preparation for, and management of, natural disasters, especially hurricanes, about whose occurrences there is often substantial warning. These are lessons, to be fair, that Jamaica has begun to embrace, which is why the Government and its disaster-management agencies ought not to second-guess their aggressive preparedness warnings when Matthew posed a threat to the island.

The authorities, of course, will feel pressured to behave otherwise in the face of possible ridicule for alleged forecasting incompetence, on the basis that it is the second time in recent months that Jamaicans have been mobilised for an impending storm that didn't strike. There will be complaints that it was the second time in recent months that the population has been placed on such an alert, causing people to spend money and exert energy, apparently for nothing.

Any such analysis, however, is neither true nor logical and misses fundamental truths. Meteorology is a science, but while forecasters, having taken the variables into account, can plot the expected movement of a storm, getting it precisely right is not always possible if all characteristics are no longer constant. That happened to Jamaica's benefit with Matthew.

Nonetheless, some communities rejected preparedness warnings to their, and other people's, peril. There are, for instance, the several past cases of residents declining offers of evacuation, only to call for help when the situation turns to crisis. Herein is the lesson from Cuba. It is not for nothing that despite being subject, over the past half-century, to similar hurricanes as its Caribbean neighbours, Cuba tends to have fewer casualties in nominal and per capita terms even lower than the United States.

 

Explanation

 

Part of the explanation for this is a difference in the philosophical approach. Rather than a focus of emergency response and post-crisis reconstruction, theirs is a culture of safety and mitigation: of preventing the phenomenon becoming a disaster and human tragedy. Training, planning and enforcement of prevention regimes are critical in that system.

For instance, in the face of threats from Matthew, several thousand people were evacuated from vulnerable communities. People knew exactly what to do and where to go. They trusted the civil-defence arrangements and acted in accordance with warnings.

If circumstances changed and the dismantling of 10,000 solar panels as happened this week from a facility in Santiago de Cuba, was for nothing, it was part of the exercise in which confidence is reposed. It helps, of course, to have a well-educated, generally disciplined population that appreciates the value, economic and otherwise, and nuances of such preparations.

It's a system that, despite the existence and efforts of an agency like ODPEM, is still embryonic in Jamaica. Its acceleration will be helped by making drills and other training part of the school curriculum.

In the meantime, the Government must persist with its civil-defence efforts and get on with the little things, like cleaning drains, which mitigates urban flooding.