Thu | Sep 21, 2017

Editorial | North Carolina's warning to Jamaica

Published:Wednesday | October 19, 2016 | 10:00 AM

Despite the nearly 900 deaths in Haiti, the emerging story of Hurricane Matthew earlier this month is perhaps North Carolina in United States. It is one to which Jamaica should pay attention and learn from.

To be clear, it is not the intention of this newspaper to dismiss, or otherwise underplay, the human tragedy in Haiti - a country whose history has been wrought by too much suffering. It is, for instance, barely six years ago that a massive earthquake in that country killed more than 200,000 people and damaged, or destroyed, 300,000-plus buildings.

But Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with a severely underdeveloped infrastructure and an ongoing struggle to develop a social and political consensus and the thriving democracy that could flow from this. This state of affairs is, in part, the price the country of descendants of slaves continues to pay for its overthrow - more than 200 years ago - of a European power to declare itself a black independent nation.

With its weak physical infrastructure and limited response capabilities - exacerbated by a denuded environment - there is always the fear of mass casualties when natural catastrophes hit Haiti. Indeed, disaster prevention and mitigation programmes, in which Haiti's Caribbean Community partners are involved, should expand and deepen existing collaboration.

That programme must include robust systems of disaster preparedness, education and response that transcend personality, but rely on institutional mechanisations for their activation and engagement.

Having caused devastation in Haiti, wreaked havoc in eastern Cuba, and slammed into central Bahamas, Hurricane Matthew hugged the coast of southeast USA. It was expected to do most damage in the states of Florida and Georgia. North Carolina was projected to be least impacted by the storm.

In the event, as it headed past Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, the hurricane moved further offshore than initially projected, and though its winds and storm surges caused substantial damage and nearly 20 deaths in these states, the disaster was not nearly as bad as anticipated. Not so in North Carolina, over which its winds passed, having shifted track.

 

DAMAGE AND DEATH

 

Damage caused by winds apart, river systems in the central part of that state overflowed their banks, flooding vast areas. Nearly a fortnight after the passage of the hurricane, an estimated 100,000 homes, offices and government building remain inundated. Nearly 30 North Carolinians are dead, of 48 killed by the storm in the USA. The economic damage is to run to several billion dollars.

There are two points here. The United States is a rich, developed nation with sophisticated catastrophe prevention and response mechanisms, whose warnings were largely heeded by citizens in the path of the hurricane. Second, while meteorology is a well-developed and sophisticated science, storm tracking is not absolutely precise. Hurricane Matthew needed only shift a few degrees from its track to cause devastation in North Carolina. The human cost might have been worse, but warning systems saved lives in that state, as they did in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

Jamaica has had a problem of people in flood-prone areas not heeding storm warnings and responding to disaster preparedness messages. That is a culture that can be changed by continuing education and reinforcing information, as Barbara Carby, the head of the Disaster Risk Reduction Centre at the University of the West Indies, observed. Those results come from building and adhering to systems, rather than depending on personalities.