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Growth & Jobs | Lessons from Irma, Gilbert and Matthew

Published:Tuesday | September 19, 2017 | 12:06 AM
Chris Hind, general manager, JN General Insurance Company
Josette Smith Scott, Geographical Information Systems Business Analyst, Jamaica National Group.
A man looks at a vehicle turned upside down by winds brought on by Hurricane Irma in the British overseas territory of Anguilla.
This file photo dated Tuesday, September 12, 2017, shows France's President Emmanuel Macron walking down a destroyed building during his visit in the French Caribbean islands of St Martin.

Jamaicans can learn lessons from the impacts of Hurricane Irma, which tracked through the Caribbean and ended up doing tremendous damage across the region, says Chris Hind, general manager of JN General Insurance Company.

There is a massive recovery bill in the United States of America, but Irma also caused widespread damage across the northern Caribbean, devastating some islands. When Jamaica had its date with destiny on September 12, 1988, caused by the equally dangerous Hurricane Gilbert, the cost was equivalent to approximately 65 per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP), according to Planning Institute of Jamaica data.

"The United States is a large country which only suffered a regional impact from Irma, mainly Florida," Hind said. "In the Caribbean, however, Irma had direct hits on several islands, with Barbuda, Anguilla and St Martin being particularly hard hit.

"Some islands stopped functioning as viable economies after being hit, and the destruction in Barbuda was so great that it has been evacuated," Hind said. "We could learn by comparing this with what happened after Gilbert."

Josette Smith Scott, geographical information systems business analyst, Jamaica National Group, said, "Hurricane Gilbert was particularly damaging because it tore through the island along its longer east to west axis. This ensured that the entire island was impacted heavily.

"Our agricultural sector was devastated and, as a result, changed our dietary patterns," Smith Scott said. "Basic infrastructure such as power generation, hospitals, telecommunications and housing were heavily damaged."

Danny Clarke, lecturer, Mona School of Business & Management at the University of the West Indies, Mona, said that putting this disaster in the context of modern Jamaica, the transformation which took place in the country between 1988 and the present needs to be considered.

"Jamaica is more advanced than when Gilbert arrived in 1988, and we are more integrated in the global marketplace," the lecturer said. "We have transitioned further from a reliance on agriculture, moving to more service industries."

Service sector more resilient, larger

The 1988 damage estimate after Gilbert was US$4 billion, and Danny Clarke, lecturer, Mona School of Business & Management at the University of the West Indies, Mona, said, "With a bigger economy now, the losses would also be greater."

However, the services sector contributed just over 60 per cent of the GDP in 1988, and that has grown to more than 70 per cent now, Josette Smith Scott said. "Agriculture would still take a major hit from a hurricane strike, but the services sector should be much more resilient and is larger now.

"One of the biggest changes is the transformation of the transportation system with improved highways," she said. "We are in a much better position than when we were so dependent on choke points such as Flat Bridge.

"At the same time, informal settlements remain a major challenge, but proportionally, more Jamaicans now live in planned communities which require environmental and building code approvals," the geographical information systems expert explained. "Therefore, less roofs should fly from houses in those areas."


ODPEM better prepared


The Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) is also better prepared to handle a major hurricane now. Joyce Reynolds Robinson, information officer, said in an email, "There are more updated plans since then."

The ODPEM officer pointed to the organisation's website at, which has information available to the public to assist in preparations for any potential disaster scenario the country could face. Established in 1980, the organisation is the country's sole disaster management body.

"We are in a period of heightened hurricane activity around the region now, but before Gilbert, it had been 37 years since Jamaica had suffered a major hurricane strike," general insurer Chris Hind stated. "The lesson is that we live in a region where hurricanes are a fact of life and with more to lose than ever before, we need to be prepared.

"The devastation wrought by Irma in the Leeward and Virgin Islands makes us think about last year when Hurricane Matthew, at Category 5 level, was heading due north towards Kingston," Hind said."It doesn't bear thinking what would have happened if it had held its path."