Hurricane David: the case for disaster risk reduction.
Friday, August 29th is the 35th anniversary of Hurricane David. Although it can be said that the physical and some of the psychological scares of this devastating storm have somewhat healed, we also believe that Dominica has not completely learnt the lessons that it should from the storm although some government officials have argued that Dominica is somewhat less vulnerable than it was on August 29th 1979.
On that day, one year after the island attained political independence from Britain, David, a Category Five hurricane packing winds of 175 miles per hour and carrying millions of gallons of rain slammed into the island. David striped trees from mountains and smashed homes to smithereens. After pounding Dominica for more than six hours, 56 people were dead, more than 180 injured and 75 percent of the population were homeless. For many months after the hurricane, hundreds lived in tents or lodged with more fortunate friends.
Most significantly, Dominica's economy was virtually swept away by the winds of David. Roads and bridges were destroyed and on Dominica's farms, almost every banana plant was broken and coconuts and other fruits littered the ground. There was plenty to eat but for a few days famine loomed. Thankfully, many countries came to the aid of our distressed country. After two months, the Interim Government of Oliver Seraphine announced that it had received pledges of US$37 million mainly from the United States, Britain, Canada and Caribbean countries. Apart from the physical damage, one of the more lasting impacts of Hurricane David was the massive exodus, in the wake of the storm, of the country's human recourses especially young, educated and trained members of the work force. That impact is still being felt 35 years later.
The point we need to stress here is that given the severe pain that David caused and the generally high cost of natural disasters, one would expect government and the population generally to plan more adequately because we do not exaggerate when we say that the threat of being devastated by another major hurricane is as real as Dominica's many crystal clear rivers. And if there are any doubts about the vulnerability of Dominica and other Caribbean islands to hurricanes, our experiences over the past few years have erased all doubts. Traumatized by potentially deadly hurricanes, the natives of these countries now live in fear every season.
Based on discussions with persons who are familiar with the state of Dominica's preparedness we conclude that though Dominicans are more aware of the occurrence and consequences of hurricanes due to the mass media and the Internet, the country is as underprepared for a major disaster as it was in 1979.
But, if this is any consolation, the other islands of the region are in the same predicament. An assessment prepared a few years ago by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency (CDERA) revealed that there were serious shortcomings in the preparedness and emergency responses of the entire Caribbean. Among the areas needing upgrading were disaster shelters, early warning systems and improvement in the levels of cooperation between the public and disaster management agencies. The study concluded that the region needed a comprehensive disaster management policy, including the provision for economic instruments and risk reduction strategies, hazard mapping and the storage of emergency supplies.
As we observe the 2014 anniversary of Hurricane David, there are a number of questions that we need to ask of our local and national authorities. These include: are the plans of the Ministry of Agriculture adequate for dealing with the eventual scarcity of food supplies after any major storm? Are communities being sensitized to the fact that roads may be destroyed by landslides and that damage can be averted if they clean drains and gullies? And if they are aware, are they following this advice? Are schools, police stations and other public buildings adequately maintained to minimize the impact of hurricanes? Are Dominicans and their government saving enough to help finance a rehabilitation effort after a major storm?
Over the past few years, Dominicans have become aware of the concepts of disaster risk management and disaster risk reduction. If these concepts are applied to our year-round preparation for disasters, our country's resilience would improve significantly.
Hurricane David was a devastating storm but due to climate change storms will become more destructive and they will arrive at our doors more frequently. In addition, given the current world-wide economic crisis few countries are in a position to offer assistance; at least not as much and as willingly as they did after Hurricane David in 1979.
The point we need to stress here is that we are all aware that hurricanes are extremely dangerous weather systems and it is therefore grossly irresponsible for the population of Caribbean countries to take them so lightly. David should have taught us that it is much cheaper to reduce the risk of disasters than to undertake repairs after the devastation of the storms. That's a lesson we are just beginning to learn.
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