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Hurricane preparedness must move to another level

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Until earlier this week, meteorological experts described category 5 hurricanes as capable of catastrophic destruction. Today, however, with the experience of the northern Leewards, especially Barbuda and St Martin, we have a new word: apocalyptic – the complete destruction of the built landscape and the attendant risks to human life.

The testimonies of people who lived through the fury of Hurricane Irma should be enough to put the fear of the destructive potential of hurricanes in our people. Survivors on the island of Barbuda, which has been described as uninhabitable, with 95 per cent of buildings destroyed or badly damaged, describe having their hurricane shutters, windows and doors torn off and beds ripped in two. Emergency managers say most of the population of 1,600 on Barbuda will be evacuated to Antigua, as what remains on Barbuda is insufficient to host the hundreds who now need a roof over their heads.

Meteorological experts say Irma is the strongest hurricane to ever pass through the Atlantic, and the fact that its winds, in excess of 180 miles per hour, have been sustained for so long, is unprecedented. They have called this hurricane a once in a generation event, but we cannot interpret that to mean that it will not happen again in the foreseeable future. If the destructive force of Irma means that we are beginning to fully experience the effects of a warming planet, then more super storms are on their way and they will hit with greater frequency.

NEMO, our main emergency management agency, stresses the importance of disaster preparedness, but how does one prepare for destructive force of such magnitude?

Going forward, we may have to do much more than ensuring that we have sufficient water, food, medication; boarding up our windows and ensuring we have no leaks, etc, as homes which previously may have been considered secure, may no longer be.

A revision of our building codes in the Caribbean may be warranted and while it will make construction more expensive or even prohibitive for many, at least we can ensure that schools and other public buildings earmarked to be emergency shelters would be able to withstand such winds.

It is also crucial that we develop evacuation protocols that would allow us to move thousands out of harm’s way very quickly. We know the limitations of our road system and we cannot wait until the approach of a catastrophic storm to determine how we will get to our citizens, to quickly move them from danger to safety. We must therefore develop the capacity to move people, wherever they are in our multi-island state, to safer spots when we are facing catastrophic storms.

To be forewarned is to be forearmed. We have been warned.

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