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Garth Rattray | Better safe than sorry

Published:Monday | October 10, 2016 | 12:00 AM

Once again, Jamaica was spared catastrophe from a major weather phenomenon. This was the closest in recent memory. Hurricane Matthew was more powerful than the legendary Hurricane Gilbert. The possible loss of life, property, infrastructure, crops, industry and earnings could have been devastating.

Hurricane Matthew followed a predicted path (albeit rather slowly) until it tracked away from us and towards Haiti. We were bracing ourselves for a Category Four or Five monster that would strip roofs, dismantle buildings, level hillsides, rip up roadways, destroy crops, halt commerce, disrupt communications, cut electricity, inundate rivers, dislocate, maim and kill our citizens. But, instead, we got cloudy skies, a few whispering winds, some storm surges and fairly brief, scattered rainfall. The only traumatic loss of life during that time was from criminal activity - a perennial, shameful, embarrassing and unnatural disaster of no mean order.

Many Jamaicans have become overconfident and feel almost invulnerable. Some believe that their earnest prayers have been saving Jamaica from certain disaster. But that doesn't explain why that same merciful God would slam the Category Four hurricane into Haiti - a poor and suffering nation, still trying to slowly recover from an unbelievably devastating earthquake that occurred six years ago. So prayers alone can't explain our good fortune.

I don't know if it's prayers, good luck, high-pressure systems, steering winds, air currents or the unpredictable and ever-changing internal mechanics of the weather systems that turn their eyes away from us, but we must be grateful for mercies. My concern is that our citizens will never take meteorological bulletins serious in the future.

We know that the behaviour of storms can only be predicted based on patterns (models) that take into account the prevailing weather conditions. The international and local meteorological offices did excellent work in not only forecasting the track and power of the disturbance but also in communicating their findings and predictions. Those who criticised the Met Service and suggested that it issued panicked and erroneous information were either extraordinarily silly or incredibly ignorant.




The Government did wonderful work during the threat. Special kudos to the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM). The body issued disaster-preparedness tips, activated full (Level Three) response and opened emergency shelters in good time. I wholeheartedly agree with Local Government Minister Desmond McKenzie for standing firm on the Government's decision to maintain a high level of disaster preparedness even when the hurricane was predicted to move so far away from us that we were threatened by storm-force, instead of hurricane-force, conditions. The Government decided that it is far better to be safe than sorry.

Now that we have emergency response on the right path, we need to be far more proactive when it comes to foul weather preparedness. We always hurriedly clean gullies and storm drains from debris, garbage and overgrown vegetation whenever we are under threat. But we need to embark on an effective and sustainable, regular maintenance schedule for keeping those storm waterways clear at all times. Not only will that require manual work, it will require structured surveillance 'upstream' for things that can, and will, end up in the drains and gullies whenever there is heavy rainfall.

And, we must be much more proactive and zero-tolerant when it comes to pollution. Many gullies accumulate mounds of refuse that point to their origin on the banks. Those structures should be removed; it is illegal to build anything that close to gully banks, but the powers that be always give their political base a free pass when it comes to matters such as these.

We must increase our vigilance regarding building projects that obstruct the free flow of storm water, (illegal) sidewalk structures, discarded motor vehicle shells and appliances. We must spend the time, effort and money to help prevent refuse and debris from clogging our drainage systems and polluting our waters, or we will end up spending a lot more to deal with the loss of life, property and livelihood.

Being safe is not confined to rapid and sensible emergency response, it involves preventing the things that can make us sorry over the short and long term.

• Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Email feedback to and