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Experts Worry Caribbean Isn't Prepared For Storms
By Matthew Hay Brown, Sentinel Staff Writer
6 June 2005
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- With another hurricane season brewing in the Caribbean, some disaster officials in the region are concerned islanders might not have learned the hard lessons of 2004.
Some islands still are recovering from the hurricanes and tropical storms that pounded the region last year, killing thousands and destroying billions of dollars in property.
Forecasters have predicted another stormy season for 2005.
Governments in this chain of small, mostly developing nations and territories have spent millions of dollars on communications, shelters and emergency supplies in preparation for the season that began Wednesday. But officials say islanders themselves must remain ready should disaster strike.
"I want to make a very strong statement," Jeremy Collymore, coordinator of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency, said last week in Barbados. "Preparedness . . . means all of us. . . . Anybody who thinks an appropriate response can be mounted only as a government will be condemned to the suffering that is associated with that misunderstanding."
Floods unleashed by Tropical Storm Jeanne last year swept away more than 3,000 in Haiti, a chronically underdeveloped nation where widespread soil erosion combined with heavy rains can be catastrophic. Hurricane Ivan damaged or destroyed 90 percent of the buildings in Grenada and 70 percent in the Cayman Islands.
Most islands of the Caribbean emerged from the season relatively unscathed. But small economies and limited infrastructures mean those hit hardest still are recovering.
Grenada, where a population of 90,000 endured losses of more than $750 million, is appealing for more international aid.
"All these years of progress and development in the country and working on tourism and so forth can be just crushed in a day," said Tim Callaghan, senior regional adviser of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance for Latin America and the Caribbean. "Grenada was set back I don't know how many years by the devastation caused there."
UP TO 15 NAMED STORMS
Forecasters are predicting 12 to 15 named storms in 2005, with seven to nine building to hurricane force, and at least three achieving Category 3 strength or higher.
Professor William Gray of Colorado State University has predicted an "expected above-average major-hurricane landfall risk in the Caribbean and the Bahamas." The Benfield Hazard Research Centre at University College, London, predicts one or two storms will make landfall in the Lesser Antilles.
Disaster officials have been preparing. The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency has sought to improve disaster mapping, flood-hazard management, crisis communications and the delivery of relief.
Of particular concern, Collymore says, are those islands still recovering from 2004.
"There are still very many victims that are living in conditions less than what they had a year ago," he said. "Much of the housing stock is still to be rebuilt, so it means that the potential need can be greater. Those countries need to be well ratcheted up at this time, looking at the shelter requirements and how they can be met."
The Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance has stocked its warehouse in Miami with plastic sheeting, water and water-purification kits, boats, blankets and medical kits; secured agreements with charter air carriers for emergency flights; and put Disaster Assistance Response Teams on alert for deployment throughout the region.
The office has briefed embassies, the State Department and the Department of Defense, has met with other relief organizations and has conducted workshops on shelter management.
'THERE'S A LOT MORE FOCUS'
Callaghan says the storms of 2004 appear to have served as a wake-up call to the region.
Deirdre Shurland wonders whether increased attention will mean better readiness. The director of the Caribbean Alliance for Sustainable Tourism has been presenting workshops on preparedness to hotel workers, government officials and first responders throughout the region.
Before giving a course, Shurland says, she reviews the national-disaster plan for the country or territory she is visiting.
"In many instances, this preparedness framework is very, very weak," she said. "There are many draft plans that have never even been drilled. Four out of five of the participants say that they have never heard of or seen these plans."
At the level of individual hotels, Shurland says, planning is similarly weak.
"I take a basic poll," she said. "How many people have a written preparedness plan? And in a class of, say, about 25 people, you might get two or three raising their hands that they have something in writing. And then the next question is: `For those that have a written plan, how many have an objective, have a defined objective that talks about saving lives, and saving property and perhaps returning the business to normal operations as quickly as possible?'
"No hands go up."
PROTECTING LIVES PARAMOUNT
The president of the Caribbean Hotel Association, of which Shurland's CAST is a division, is more positive about the state of planning.
"Foremost in the minds of the hotel sector is the importance of protecting life at any cost," said Berthia Parle, who manages an inn and a hotel on St. Lucia. "Most hotels have what they call a safe zone, which is an area far removed from heavy seas and swells and high tides and from flying debris. Most of us know what to do to tape down our windows and put people in that safe zone -- make them as comfortable as possible."
Parle says the experience of Grenada, which lies south of the traditional "hurricane belt," was a lesson to the region.
"A lot of people who have not had insurance on their businesses or their homes have now actually gone out and got some insurance," she said. "We have several public announcements daily now on radio and television informing people that hurricane season is starting, go out and get your insurance, make sure your gutters and drains are cleared, and really educating the citizens. . . . There's a lot of public education, public awareness taking place within a lot of the countries within the Caribbean region."