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Letter of the Day | Putting Carby's ODPEM concerns in context

Published:Tuesday | October 11, 2016 | 12:00 AM


Distinguished public servant, current director of the Disaster Risk Reduction Centre (DRRC) at the University of the West Indies (UWI) and a former head of the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM), Dr Barbara Carby, in an interview with The Gleaner, raised concerns about the recent preparations for the possible onslaught of Hurricane Matthew and how publicity surrounding the preparations was handled.

While her concerns, on the surface, seem quite valid, more and better particulars are needed to ascertain whether the criticism, in the instant case, was justified or misplaced.

ODPEM currently has a director of public information who was shown in at least one live TVJ interview on the eve of the predicted storm. This suggests there was no restriction on media access. ODPEM issued press releases and advisories, apparently without the prior approval of any politician. Indeed, when Matthew was still classified as a tropical storm, ODPEM issued press release No.1 advising of its location and things that the public needed to do to prepare themselves in the event of a direct hit. And there were others. So in what way were the professionals sidelined?

Dr Carby seemed specifically concerned that ODPEM professionals with specific knowledge had not been given room to liaise properly with the public - and this seems to stem from a joint press conference where the local government minister spoke, and nothing was heard from the agency head. The second area of concern was that the politicians were not providing particularly useful info.




It seems to me, however, that if ODPEM officials needed a joint press conference to make their voices heard in a time of crisis, something would be amiss internally in how they see their role and how they operate. The organisation is too well-established to be easily co-opted by politicians, and if the local government minister was ubiquitous in sharing "irrelevances", ODPEM personnel could still use their good offices to provide useful advisories without speaking at cross-purposes with elected persons.

So, did the minister or other ministers strong-arm ODPEM officials to keep quiet and let politicians alone speak at the press conference? Were they barred from speaking in any other forum? If that happened and the officials complied, they should be working elsewhere but not in as important an organisation as ODPEM.

It would seem to me that ODPEM officials have too many platforms at their disposal to share timely and useful information with the public to be effectively sidelined by politicians. Perhaps the current head, Major Clive Davis, needed to have played a greater leadership role in a moment of looming crisis. On the other hand, ODPEM may have opted for an agency-centred information flow rather than a personality-focused one.

In this case, the charge of politicians sidelining the ODPEM professionals seems overstated.