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Category: Reflections 15 Aug 10

It was sad and embarrassing to watch the ODPM scramble around for 80 mattresses during our flooding disaster which killed one man, robbed over 500 families of all their possessions, shut down Petrotrin, destroyed electrical appliances, and contributed to the dengue outbreak. No shelters were earmarked, no one knew where to go. We could have told Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar that the ODPM was not ready for a disaster in Trinidad and Tobago since February when I visited the ODPM’s swanky offices and interviewed key people there researching a seven-part series titled Disaster in T&T: Are We Prepared? for the Guardian and CNC3.


To my growing horror I discovered the following: The ODPM’s “mass casualty” plan was so pathetic that in the event of an earthquake (which could kill up to 10,000 people and injure thousands) or hurricane, (which could leave thousands homeless given that we have no building code) storms, or severe floods, only 200 hospital beds are available; shelters are not earmarked; fire and police services are not sufficiently equipped for search and rescue; that morgues would overflow. This is what I wrote, then: “During the course of this investigation I discovered that most people have no idea what to do or where to go if a major natural disaster like an earthquake of 7.0 and above, or category “three” hurricane hits us. Events which experts have told us to expect could leave thousands dead, injured, homeless.”


One reader wrote in saying, “T&T is not even prepared for high winds, much less flooding, storms, hurricanes or a major earthquake.” We got the warnings back in February from the people we will be turning to in the event of a disaster in this country. Richard Robertson, head of the Seismic Research Unit at UWI, told us we were just as, if not more vulnerable to earthquakes in T& T which is on a similar plate setting as Haiti. “Larger earthquakes of 8.5 magnitude and above happen every 150-200 years or so. We are overdue for one here.” He reminded us that in the last four years seismologists have seen a substantial increase in the number of small earthquakes within the land mass of Trinidad.


Robertson could say “with some degree of accuracy—where events that could shake up our lives forever were the southeast of Tobago, Gulf of Paria, and Paria peninsula. In March Dr Richard Clarke, lecturer at the Civil Engineering Department of UWI told us, “If we were hit by a magnitude 8 earthquake in Trinidad then at least some of our buildings will be destroyed and major industrial areas of Pt Lisas, Point-a-Pierre and Pt Fortin, will experience huge explosions and raging fires from leaks of the many natural gas pipelines which crisscross Trinidad. Clouds of poisonous gases would be released. These fires would rage unchecked since there would be no water as pipelines would be ruptured by the earthquake and there would be no electricity to pump the water.”


He added chillingly that “we would be looking at a minimum of 30,000 dead and 100,000 injured. Acting Police Commissioner James Philbert said “If the earthquake hit in the day, hundreds of thousands of terrified people would wander around trying to locate their families, their kids at school, attempting to get shelter, to get water and food. If it happened at night, these people would be trying to dig out friends and relatives by hand in darkness lit only by hellish flames. There will be looting and burning.” In March Col George Robinson, CEO of the Office of Disaster Preparedness & Management (ODPM) told us that “the effects of even a magnitude 7.0 earthquake on the kind of built environment that we have in Trinidad and Tobago, would have a similar experience to Haiti adding “we would need external assistance to support us.”


That means thousands upon thousands would be dead and homeless. Look at those pictures of Haiti again. That would be us. Are we prepared? No. Marlon Noel, Assistant Director of the Trinidad and Tobago Meteorological Office told us that with rising sea water temperatures caused by global warming, it is very likely that T&T will suffer from category two, three, four or even five hurricane. Adding “only a matter of time before T&T gets hit.” Noel told us then that “Trinidad and Tobago’s drains and rivers cannot cope with the runoff of regular rainy season cloud bursts. A hurricane or storm will mean that “flooding will occur in central and south Trinidad destroying most of Trinidad’s agricultural produce.


There would be flood damage to roads (including the Churchill Roosevelt, the Uriah Butler and the Solomon Hochoy Highways) and bridges.” Storm surges Along the Northern (Toco/Matelot/Blanchisseuse/ Maracas) and Eastern (Mayaro/ Manzanilla) coasts storm surges (Ivan’s storm surges were as much as 4m high) and high winds would severely damage roads and houses, a major problem to villages which would be already cut off due to landslides to which we are already prone to in the rainy season.” Storm surges and high winds would severely damage houses “down the islands” and destroy many of our yachts in Chaguaramas.”


Learning from Grenada we know there will be no pipeborne water supply for weeks and the electricity supply, due to loss of many electricity poles, may take several months to return to normal. In addition to lives lost and major disruption to our lives, the cost of such a disaster would be, if we go by Grenada’s experience in the region of TT$70 billion. Are we prepared? If we can’t deal with flood waters, can we deal with an earthquake? Without a building code, revamping our 40-year-old drainage system we will continue to mop up, spin top in mud and hope disaster doesn’t strike.


In the meantime, once again we ask the question we asked in February. Is T&T prepared for any level of disaster? No.



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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur