after Tropical Storm Brett smoothly bypassed us in August 1993, I was put
through my private little storm that swirled with comments from anyone who
wanted a little kicks. Every year, when the hurricane season rolled
around, I was the easiest pot-shot target ever.
Colonel, your father, is the best, yes, he give the WHOLE country a day
off-for nothing. He say hurricane coming kyah, kyah, kyah. Nothing happen.
You think he could give us a next holiday?"
public would often refer to my father, with his background in the army and
civil engineering as remote from meteorology as you can get, as the
predict a hurricane, a big fat hurricane, you hear, but we get a drizzle.
That was the greatest, yes."
And so it
went and occasionally still goes.
with a NEMA news conference where I heard my father, then Director of the
National Emergency Management Agency, speak with a sobriety you associate
with an impending war. Reporters were scribbling as fast as they could
decipher his heavy accent.
is it. The storm we thought would never strike us is coming to hit us
tonight. I had warned it would happen one day and we have been planning
for it for the last three years. The most damaging elements of the storm
would be high speed winds and floods. Roofs would blow off and trees and
poles would be uprooted. NEMA will try to move people from disaster areas
to schools designated as shelters and clearly marked on disaster response
maps and help with transport and food when required."
hours of that dramatic notice that Brett's destructive eye was hurtling
towards us I was assigned by Bernard Pantin at TV6 News to accompany a
live television and radio (Prime 106) crew to NEMA's operations centre at
offices were jammed with so much urgency you would have thought the storm
had already struck.
set up for our live broadcast and overnight vigil phones were shrieking
off the hook. People comprising the NEMA task force were pouring in thick
and fast. Brigadier Ralph Brown, the acting Minister of National Security
Gordon Draper, reps from the Red Cross, the Met Office, Fire Services, the
Ministry of Health and Ministry of Works were trooping in to tie up
arrangements for radio communications, evacuation and shelters. Maps of
each district were plastered on all available wall and floor space
earmarking the nearest shelters.
office was on a heart-pounding alert: life-blood adrenalin for all the
I was in
the peculiar position of solemnly interviewing my own father every 20
minutes on live television and radio. Apart from the understandable
father/daughter issue for which I take no blame since I was assigned-I was
questioning the man who to me was not "the Director of the National
Emergency Management Agency" but someone who had done more than his
share of fathering over the years-from wiping my nose to hammering Maths
into my science-resistant skull, banging the phone down on boys who called
home, accompanying me to find my graduation dress, to literally dragging
me to university with my ankle in a cast. I summoned every inch of
objectivity for which I had been trained to meet him square on,
professional to professional.
minutes that night I was asking my father, addressing him in a manner that
sounded horribly stilted to my own ears, "Colonel Mahendra Mathur,
Director of NEMA, could you kindly inform the public as to what measures
they should take to safeguard themselves and their possessions?"
were repeatedly told to move to safer places, if they were in low-lying
areas, bolt their doors and windows, earmark a secure room in the house to
shelter from winds, ensure they had two days' supply of water and canned
food, safeguard precious documents in water-proof bags, secure any object
that could turn into a missile in the wind, stay indoors, make sure
children were accounted for, help relatives, neighbours or elderly
persons. They were advised to familiarise themselves with the shelters
closest to them from the disaster response maps published in the Express
earlier in the hurricane season.
played havoc in a few places. NEMA relocated a family from Point Fortin,
rescued six people at sea, pointed them to shelters.
bulletins up to 11.30 p.m. continued to confirm the movement of Brett
towards Trinidad and Tobago.
night wore on nothing happened apart from a little rain and some wind. I
looked out of the window with sleep-deprived eyes, almost willing the
dribble of rain to turn into a thrashing mayhem so I would have a story.
a.m. the meteorologist confirmed that the storm had bypassed us. There was
a stand down and my father called Brett a dress rehearsal for an event he
hoped would never take place.
initially anxious and alert, look jaded. My father looked relieved but I
was acutely embarrassed. All this for nothing? A juvenile's response.
overlooked, myself included, that because of inadequate warnings and
evacuation procedures Brett claimed up to 150 lives in Venezuela and
30,000 people had to flee their homes. We were right to be prepared.
intimations of that day almost a decade later as my father, now the
retired director of NEMA, appeared on television advising people as
Hurricane Ivan made its way towards us early last week. This time I hopped
about at home, a member of the public, half hearing, half panicking,
understanding the fragility of all our lives. This time though, my
father's presence on TV didn't bring a sense of security. Nobody knew what
the correct NEMA numbers were. Nobody knew where the shelters were. Nobody
knew what to do. Nobody knew how to help the one family who needed
shelter. The resources exist in our country but the coordinating agency
was eerily absent: A whispering ghost. There were no maps. It was clear
that if Ivan hit us there would be utter chaos. We would all be walking in
debris - without direction.
winds, a thundery sky. Flooding. That was all. But it was a close call.
God once again took our side. But we saw what happened to our neighbours
in Grenada-dozens dead, almost every edifice damaged, water and
electricity supplies stopped, looting, millions of dollars worth of
damage, people watching their life's work turn into debris.
warning us by bringing disaster so close to home-that even as we help
shoulder the back-breaking burden of our brothers and sisters in Grenada,
to be prepared ourselves.