Thu | Dec 14, 2017

Rohan Wright | Lessons from Irma for ODPEM

Published:Wednesday | September 27, 2017 | 12:11 AM
AP A ruined house is seen in the El Negro community a day after the impact of Hurricane Maria, in Puerto Rico, on Thursday, September 21.

Nothing feels better than enjoying an end-of-summer breeze in South Florida on a day with nothing else to do.

I was on vacation and nothing else mattered. Sadly, that enjoyment was to be cut short as news broke of a massive hurricane heading our way. I spent the next few days with eyes glued to the Weather Channel. Outside was still. The proverbial calm before the storm was all too real.

It was interesting to learn that the name 'Irma' was of Germanic origins and eerily translates to 'Lady of War'. I watched the devastation left in her trail and knew comparisons to Katrina and Gilbert should not to be taken lightly. Everyone had an important decision to make: evacuate or stay put and hunker down.

What kept me reassured despite certain danger were the paradoxical extremes of intensity and calmness surrounding the preparations organised by state and city governments.

Like clockwork, live press conferences were broadcast on all radio and television stations serving the area informing residents of preparations and precautions. The officials were not frantic but spoke with urgency. Important phone numbers were repeated and emergency hotlines with both recorded information and live persons were available. They even made the effort to announce the adjusted opening hours of the more popular supermarket chains and hardware suppliers. Telecommunication providers announced that they would set up free Wi-Fi at locations with power back-up and open their networks free for non-customers. (Take a page, Digicel and FLOW: not every disaster has to be revenue potential). One company even published a website with all its free Wi-Fi locations and encouraged persons to download the list and keep handy for when residential service would go down.

 

Suspended tolls

 

By order of the governor's office, toll collections were suspended at all Florida roadways, so anyone wishing to use the highways could do so at no cost. Obviously, this assisted with speedier travel along the belts and further encouraged persons to evacuate.

Price gouging is unlawful by Florida statute, and the state had established a special hotline accepting reports of inflated prices during the state of emergency. I understand the attorney general received more than 7,000 complaints.

The State Emergency Operations Center sent prerecorded messages to every number registered in their system informing residents of the impending danger with guidelines on how to prepare. You were prompted to confirm receipt of the message otherwise your phone would continue to ring until the message was delivered. Our local telephone operators use a similar system to annoy us with iTunes and Blingback advertisements.

For areas under mandatory evacuations, officials clearly stated 'Get out now. If you chose to stay, you are on your own. If you are in trouble, do not call us. No one will come.' In addition to this, strict curfews were in order for several areas (even those without evacuation orders).

 

Portable Street signals

 

A novel addition to the streetscape in the days following the storm was the installation of portable street signals. These movable instruments were somewhere around five feet tall (probably adjustable) and placed in the middle of the road to direct as many as four-way traffic. Since electricity was out in some areas and street signals were not recalibrated in others, this helped with traffic issues and eased the burden on traffic police whose manpower would be better served elsewhere.

I did find issue with one customer filling a 55-gallon plastic barrel in the back of his pickup truck. The banks were also closed for up to a week after the storm (perhaps they shipped out all the money and couldn't get it back in), and the streets were unkempt for longer than necessary as many residents decided to wait for city services to clean up in what was a simple rake-and-bag operation in some areas.

Clearly, I have much to be thankful for. I suffered no damage, no flood and no inconvenience other than a 36-hour power outage. My heart goes out to those who were not so fortunate. I am also glad to be back in Jamaica and pray the best for those families that are still without refuge.

- Rohan K. Wright is a policy analyst, consultant and public commentator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rohankw@live.com.