Will the states mass casualty plan work?


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Category: Reflections 01 Mar 10

Disaster in T&T Pt 5

“If T&T finds itself in that position (experiencing a major natural disaster), we would surely need assistance from neighbours, friends, bigger countries, whoever can afford to help will have to help. I don’t think we can boast that we will be able to deal with a large number of casualties on our own.” —Acting Commissioner of Police James Philbert.

In Part Five of this seven-part series on Disaster in T&T, Ira Mathur examines the State’s mass casualty plan at Mt Hope in the event of a major earthquake which scientists say is “overdue” in the region. In the midst of CNC3 and the Guardian special reports on disasters in T&T, an earthquake of epic proportions—8.8 magnitude crushed Chile on Saturday, leaving 300 dead (the death toll is expected to rise), displacing more that 1.5 million people, damaging 500,000 homes and triggering a tsunami that surged across the Pacific to as far as Japan and Russia. So while this series painted a hypothetical picture of devastation that could take place in T&T, which does not have a building code, it took shape with chilling reality in Chile. It happened there. It could happen here since T&T also lies along a fault line. AP reported that the Chile earthquake “ripped apart buildings, highways and bridges and leaving a path of smoky rubble before sending waves rumbling across the Pacific Basin.”

The surge of water raced across the Pacific, setting off alarm sirens in Hawaii, Polynesia and Tonga and prompting warnings across 53 nations. Waves flooded hundreds of houses in the town of Vichato, in the BioBio region. More than 50 aftershocks topped magnitude 5, including one of magnitude 6.9.

Here is an eyewitness report from AP

“A deafening roar rose from the convulsing earth as buildings groaned and clattered. The sound of screams was confused with the crash of plates and windows. Then the earth stilled, silence returned and a smell of damp dust rose in the streets, where stunned survivors took refuge. “A journalist emerging into the darkened street scattered with downed power lines saw a man, some of his own bones apparently broken, weeping and caressing the hand of a woman who had died in the collapse of a cafe. Two other victims lay dead a few feet (metres) away.” Although geophysicists say the Chilean quake was hundreds of times more powerful than Haiti’s magnitude of 7.0, it cost far fewer lives. Why did the 7.0 quake in Haiti kill 300,000 people, while Chile’s victims appear to be limited so far in the hundreds? Why is it that although President Michelle Bachelet declared a “state of catastrophe” in central Chile, she could categorically claim that her government had not asked for assistance from other countries at the time of writing?

The answer is that Chile was prepared at the three vital levels:
1. Firstly, although 500,000 houses were severely damaged, the homes didn’t turn into liquid under the severe shock as they could have if they were built without a housing code;

2. Secondly, its first responders, the fire, police and defence force had enough power and manpower to deal with the debris and fires caused by the biggest earthquake to hit in over a century; and

3. Finally, early indications are that the state has a mass-casualty plan which has not been overcome with a disaster of such proportions. This would not be the case should an earthquake of a magnitude of 8.0 hit here which is predicted to kill 30,000 people, injure just as many and displace almost our entire population.

Col George Robinson, chief executive officer of the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) says we do have a mass casualty plan in place, and that it is “rehearsed.” But, when it comes to its execution, it was clear that his hands were tied, and the matter was beyond his control, a sentiment that is echoed by Dr Avril Siung-Chang, disaster management consultant at the Ministry of Health’s Emergency Operations Centre-based in Mt Hope. Dr Siung–Chang, describes T&T’s Mass-Casualty Plan as follows:

“The ministry will contact the RHAs and hospitals on our emergency telecommunications system and ask them of their status, and we will know how many beds are available. “Our hospitals function near capacity as it is so we don’t have much leeway for expansion but the plan does allow us to send home patients who can go home, delay certain procedures, and involve the private medical institutions. This means we can deal with up to 200 critically injured patients.” Given that thousands could be critically injured this capacity appears miniscule.

Siung-Chang was also concerned about medical staff, a problem which showed up in their drills. “There’s a glut of doctors, but there’s not enough nurses in the system now and doctors may have to do nursing work,” he said. This means T&T may find itself in a situation like Haiti’s where the dead and injured lined the streets for days. Even Haiti and Grenada had certain advantages that T&T does not have. Haiti occupies part of an island where its neighbour, the Dominican Republic, was not affected badly, so emergency support and supplies could be mobilised via the Dominican Republic. It is also 2,000 miles closer than T&T to the country who was also likely to be one of the first international responders, the USA. In Grenada’s case, its small size made dealing with problems easier. It was easier to supply 100,000 people with clean water rather than 1.3 million in T&T. In addition, Robinson said: “The (displaced) population would need to be fed and housed. We may have to set up in temporary camps.”

And acting Commissioner of Police James Philbert said: “If T&T finds itself in that position (experiencing a major natural disaster), we would surely need assistance from neighbours, friends, bigger countries, whoever can afford to help will have to help. “I don’t think we can boast that we will be able to deal with a large number of casualties on our own.” Despite the disaster planning, T&T’s first responders and health services were simply not properly equipped to deal with any large-scale disasters. So what to do? The only way out of utter devastation was for each citizen to take responsibility his/her life, starting with fortifying homes so to avoid a fate like Haiti and be more prepared like Chile which does have a building code.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur