HURRICANE Gilbert, which in 1988 struck Jamaica leaving 45 dead and millions in damage, was a lesson well learnt and a catalyst for disaster risk management, two of the country's bright minds believe.
"What stands out the most is the level of activity that takes place within the general population once we are aware of an impending storm. It is not yet perfect in the context of a people with a culture that is risk conscious but certainly if you compared the approach to Gilbert as an arriving storm to current storms you would have seen significant improvement in that regard," executive director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) Ronald Jackson told the Jamaica Observer from his office in Barbados yesterday in a reflective moment.
Jackson said Jamaicans at the time had probably used their experience of weather systems such as what was then called the '51 storm' (Charlie) and others to pre-judge what Gilbert would have brought, only to be caught by surprise.
"By the time Gilbert would have come around there was a sense of complacency in our population that they just did not believe that Jamaica could have been impacted and that was reflected not just in terms of the way people responded to that event but the whole culture of government of our sectors, of our businesses, there was not a risk management culture in 1988," he said.
That behaviour, however, might mostly be gone with the wind, he said.
"If we look at today's Jamaica we see where more and more individuals are seeking out knowledge about how to be ready for these events, you would have seen improvements certainly in terms of roof construction, the securing of roofs, not that it is at the level where it should be but it is far advanced," Jackson pointed out.
"People are using more hurricane straps in construction in the formal sector. [With] a lot of houses in the formal structure the rooftops were destroyed in Gilbert, so now we are seeing less and less of that. Some of the lessons coming out of Gilbert are actually finding its way into the practices in the construction sector," he added.
Furthermore, the CDEMA head said, sectors are now more aware of disaster risks and the level of exposure that their sector faces.
"So [for] tourism and agriculture you are seeing more investment in ensuring that the sector is a little more resilient. We are learning. You see where continuity planning is finding its way more and more into the private sector where they are now ensuring that their business operations are hurricane ready," he noted.
"In the past you would not have seen such a level of investment at the private sector level on hurricane resilience and overall disaster resilience. So we are in fact seeing year over year improvements, but if we are to compare the decade of the 80s where we saw Gilbert to the current decade, you would certainly see some improvements," Jackson told the Observer.
He however pointed out that the island still has some way to go.
"Work still needs to be done however in terms of how we treat with the hardening of our infrastructure. Our drains, coastal defences, the facilities that we use for emergency shelters such as schools, the communities where we see quite a bit of informal settlements and that is where a lot of work needs to be done going forward so that if we were to face another Gilbert we would not have that sector of our population at a high level of risk," Jackson said.
In the meantime, he said, Jamaica should do more to preserve its natural defences which have proved more than a saviour in times past.
"One of the clear signs of that and an area I think we need to go back as a people to look at how we treat is the environment. The natural ecosystems play a significant role in terms of reducing the level of impact of these storms. What we have seen certainly in a number of context is damage to the coastal ecosystems, whether the mangroves or coral reefs, and that leaves the coastline very exposed to the ravages of the winds that come ashore and also the storm surges," he noted.
"So whilst we haven't seen another Gilbert-type event, we do see indicators that there is much work that needs to be done in the extent of our coastal protection, the health of our ecosystems and the character and quality of our built infrastructure," Jackson said yesterday.
In the meantime, he is appealing for more to be done to empower entities such as the Meteorological Services so they can provide the kind of climate-related services to disaster management actors, infrastructure planners and developers to enable them to make proper development decisions.
"It is imperative to improve our planning and enforcement practises especially as it relates to construction in areas where it shouldn't occur, that is an area we still have to take in hand and look at the best strategies, and there are strategies that can be applied," he added.
In the meantime, Acting Director General of the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) Richard Thompson said that Gilbert was for Jamaica a turning point.
"It has been 25 years since and looking at Hurricane Gilbert in perspective I think that was a catalyst as it relates to a lot of our growth in disaster risk management in Jamaica," he told the Observer.
"Many persons were saying we were a God-blessed country and we would not be hit by a hurricane but we were in fact hit. Since Gilbert what it has done is it has improved our awareness," he noted.
"Since Gilbert there was a revision of the National Disaster Plan, also the Act that governs the operation of the ODPEM also underwent a name change from the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Response Co-ordination in 1993," he said, pointing also to the emphasis being placed on public education campaigns.
"Then there are the developments in the whole shelter management issue where we are getting non-governmental organisations involved. There is integrated disaster risk reduction which speaks to the collaborative efforts of all the agencies involved in disaster mitigation," Thompson pointed out.
"We have been putting in a lot of work and I think Gilbert was the catalyst for that in terms of how prepared we are," the ODPEM acting director general said.
He, too, noted the improvements in the housing stock as the result of lessons learnt from Gilbert.
"The fact that we lost so many roofs in Gilbert and a large percentage of the housing was damaged, a lot went into building out the sector, extending to the use of hurricane straps and zoning for areas that are highly vulnerable and looking at integrating disaster risk reduction in the sector," he noted.
"About 60 per cent of the damage [caused by] Gilbert was in the agriculture sector and you will find we have done a lot of work there, as well as in the tourism sector. We have come a very, very far way in terms of comprehensive disaster management," Thompson said.
In the meantime, he said work continues on further battening down the island with a specially appointed sub-committee now looking at the framework for the introduction of no-build zones, how those will be defined and managed along with the appropriate legislation.
"We have 947 communities in Jamaica and over 300 are considered highly vulnerable.There is a need to have no-build zones and we are looking at that," he told the Observer.
Thompson said the issue of mandatory evacuation was being looked at but noted that this has a number of legal implications, in which case it might be easier to maintain a compulsory evacuation regime.
Gilbert swept the entire island on September 12, 1988 and became the first direct hurricane impact since Hurricane Charlie on August 17, 1951.
According to statistics from ODPEM, the hurricane, in its eight-hour rampage across the length of Jamaica, caused estimated loss to the island's domestic crops of J$769 million. The banana industry, comprising 12,000 acres for the local market and 7,100 for the export market, was totally destroyed.
Damage was reported in all resort areas on the north coast. Over 80 per cent of the hotels suffered damage. Overall damage to the tourism sector was estimated at J$431 million.
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