Disaster at the door


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Category: Trinidad Society Date: 13 Sep 04


For years 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.


"The 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?"


And the 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 "weatherman".


"He 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.


It began 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.


"This 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."


Within 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 Abercromby Street.


The small offices were jammed with so much urgency you would have thought the storm had already struck.


While we 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.


The entire office was on a heart-pounding alert: life-blood adrenalin for all the journalists present.


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.


Every 20 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?"


The public 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.


The wind played havoc in a few places. NEMA relocated a family from Point Fortin, rescued six people at sea, pointed them to shelters.


Meteorological bulletins up to 11.30 p.m. continued to confirm the movement of Brett towards Trinidad and Tobago.


As the 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.


By 5.30 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.


The teams, initially anxious and alert, look jaded. My father looked relieved but I was acutely embarrassed. All this for nothing? A juvenile's response.


Everyone 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.


There were 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.


Some strong 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.


He's 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.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur