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Category: Reflections 26 Feb 10

Disaster in T&T Pt 4

During the course of this investigation, I discovered that most people have no idea of what to do or where to go if a major natural disaster like an earthquake of magnitude seven and above, or a Category 3 hurricane hits us.

Our experts have already established that such an event is very possible in the near future and could leave thousands dead, injured, homeless. The co-ordinating body in the event of such a disaster is the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM).

Are we any better off than Haiti?

Col Robinson revealed that in the last 14 months, the ODPM has done several co-ordination simulation exercises with police, Fire Service, military, regional authorities, communications and mass casualty sectors. The ODPM and all its agencies were on full alert for the Summit of the Americas, when US President Barack Obama was among the visiting heads of Government, and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting when this country hosted more than 50 heads of government and played an enormous role in their safety and security. Our armed forces will be the first respondents in the event of a disaster, clearing the way for medical personnel. However, our forces have their limitations in the face of a major disaster. Acting Commissioner of Police James Philbert said nothing could prepare the first responders for an earthquake similar to that of Haiti’s, in which our engineering experts say 30,000 people could die and thousands injured. “In terms of thousands injured and dead, devastation of buildings, you cannot simulate that...What you can simulate is ordinary response from troops, preparing them.” Philbert said, “our defence forces in the 1970 uprising and the 1990 attempted coup had gone beyond the call...But in a disaster of such proportions, our concerns are that the protective services will themselves be seriously affected through injuries and death,” he said.

The police chief said a state of emergency would be necessary. “Those are things you wish didn’t have to happen at all, both sides of it, that the troops would have to shoot people and that people would be coming out to loot and burn, but those are major concerns,” he said. “People grab for food. In 1990, people were smashing glass in shops and grabbing television sets and microwaves and running down the street with it.” Haiti paid the price for the lessons that the Caribbean still needs to learn. Colonel Mahendra Mathur, former director of the National Emergency Management Agency (Nema), said, “Caricom has a disaster emergency response—Cidera. “They should have been the first to get to Haiti and establish an emergency operations centre, so that rather than Americans taking over, telling us ‘you can’t come in,’ this centre would co-ordinate aid from the world,” he said. “If there is no emergency operations centre, no one man in charge of it, confusion starts. “So in the 72 hours after the earthquake in Haiti, vital supplies were stuck in the airport while people struck by the earthquake suffered and perished.” Despite all the planning and effort that have been put into Trinidad and Tobago’s response capability through the ODPM, Robinson acknowledged that there was simply no way the ODPM could plan a viable emergency response for a magnitude 7 earthquake hitting Trinidad and Tobago.

“We recognise that is a classic case of a disaster,” he said. “The capacity of the Haitian nation to respond to a hazard impact was overwhelmed on that particular and fateful day. Given the kind of built environment that we have, we would have been experiencing difficulty in a similar fashion to Haiti.” In the case of a Category 3 hurricane, advance notice would be given by the Meteorological Office. The ODPM would give out warnings and recommend that, if necessary, people whose houses were not designed to withstand the hurricane to either find alternative accommodation or go to a designated shelter. The US report on New Orleans stated: “The relocation plans did not adequately provide for shelter. Housing plans were haphazard and inadequate. There was not adequate provision for food, water, sleeping and toilet facilities.” There was also major criticism of the transport plans for moving vulnerable people, “including the elderly, the handicapped, and the ill.” “The failure of complete evacuations led to preventable deaths, great suffering, and further delays in relief,” the report said.

Our engineers have confirmed that the inability of our housing to stand up to an hurricane of this size would mean that some 750,000 people would need to either go to relatives or be housed in shelters equipped with adequate supplies. Shelters, which are primarily schools and community centres, cannot accommodate the number of people in need. In fact, there is no data on the structural integrity of the community centres and of the schools themselves.

The ODPM designates disasters as follows:

• Level 1: Localised emergency events that can be dealt with by regular operations of the protective and health services.

• Level 2: Emergency/disaster events that overwhelm the capacity of the resources in a particular region, but not national resources.

• Level 3:  Emergency/disaster events that overwhelm the capacity of the national resources to respond and recover.

In the final analysis, Robinson said, T&T would fall into level three.

“If the same earthquake hit us in Trinidad, it would have overwhelmed our resources in the same way, and we would have needed external assistance to support us,” he said.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur