Fri | Sep 21, 2018

On alert! - Utility companies ready to respond quickly in case of Gilbert-type disaster

Published:Wednesday | September 12, 2018 | 12:00 AMPaul Clarke/Gleaner Writer
A team from the Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS) replaces an old JPS pole in the zone of special operations in Denham Town, west Kingston.

On September 12, 1988, Jamaica was devastated by Hurricane Gilbert, a powerful and deadly Category Three storm.

While the name of the hurricane was subsequently retired by the World Meteorological Organisation, because of the widespread damage and loss of lives it caused, the dangers of being hit once again by a monster storm is an ever-present reminder.

As a result, the country's four main utility companies, the Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS), National Water Commission (NWC), FLOW and Digicel Jamaica, are reporting that they are ready and operationally strong to respond.

Gilbert was the most devastating hurricane to hit Jamaica since Charlie in 1951. Still, it was an event not equalled by any subsequent weather events to date.

It is estimated that Gilbert's ferocious winds and driving rain caused damage amounting to

$7 billion from destroyed crops, buildings, houses, roads, and small aircraft, with more than 100,000 houses destroyed or damaged island-wide.

For the NWC, the impact of the hurricane could have been worse, given the sheer destructive path it took across the island.

According to company records, following Gilbert, the NWC sustained damage to more than 100 intakes, several water-treatment facilities and segments of the water-distribution system. The estimated cost of effecting repairs at the time was $55 million.

With more water and wastewater systems commissioned since then, the NWC would not be in any worse position to recover if such an eventuality of the magnitude of Hurricane Gilbert should occur in present day.

"Certainly, the technical expertise among our staff has increased; so, too, investments in long-term and longer-term solutions, such as the current five-year Non-Revenue Water Reduction programme with Israeli partner, Miya, aimed at reducing losses over time with investments in the piping infrastructure islandwide," NWC's Corporate Public Relations Manager Charles Buchanan said.

And while Digicel was not around when Hurricane Gilbert dismantled the country's infrastructure, its system is built tough to respond to emergencies, such as a major Gilbert-type event, according to Corporate Communications Director Elon Parkinson.

"While we hope for a quiet hurricane season, it's very important for all of us to take action now and prepare. At Digicel, we're busy putting our house in order to make sure that our network and people are as ready as they can be," Parkinson said.

He told The Gleaner that Digicel monitors severe weather activity for potential impact and immediately activates its Crisis Management Committee to coordinate pre- and post-hurricane responses.

"We understand how critical reliable communication can be before, during, and after a severe weather event. This is why our cell sites are refuelled and ready, response teams in position, and critical supplies are in place," Parkinson said.

The light and power company, the JPS, said that it takes its responsibility seriously, and has invested millions in getting its infrastructure sturdy enough to bounce back from a major disaster.

Being in an 'ever-ready' state is almost second nature, according to JPS, which has an ongoing structural integrity programme.

The company says it systematically inspects poles for strength and integrity.

"Since 2015, JPS has changed or rehabilitated approximately 5,000 poles per year. In 2017, the company invested US$4.36 million or more than J$602 million on pole replacement and rehabilitation," said a JPS release to The Gleaner.

Meanwhile, telecoms giant Flow, which traded at the time of Gilbert's onslaught, as Cable and Wireless, has since invested millions in its business continuity management programme to mitigate and minimise disruption in its business operations in case a future disaster of the magnitude of hurricane Gilbert emerges.

"We have invested heavily to protect our network and ensure minimal service disruptions to our customers in the event of a disaster. In fact, our Disaster Management Plan for hurricanes is one of 13 that are in place," Kayon Mitchell, Flow's communications director, said.

paul.clarke@gleanerjm.com