Thursday, September 24, 2009


There is a tendency to think that when attempts are made to prepare adequately for disaster or crises and they do not materialize, that it is overreaction. This is why preparation is done to ensure nothing happens and so if it did not, particularly given past experiences, then the preparation may have worked. The Government of Dominica's recent decision to close schools and businesses in the face of an impending stormed was framed as overreaction. The overwhelming police presence in Pittsburgh as the G20 gets on the way, and the decision to close large parts of the city reduce the number of people in town, remove innocent people from the scene, allowing the officers to focus on protesters. Imagine trying to differentiate the innocent from those bent on social mischief in the name of peaceful protest with the world watching.

The mountainous terrain in Dominica amplifies the orographic lifting and results in torrential rain; that terrain also results in landslides and other slope failures often with disastrous consequences (recall Hurricane Dean in which a mother and her son perished in a landslide; remember Bagatelle in which an entire section of the community was buried alive). The nature of disaster or crisis is to be disruptive and it happens when we caught unguarded. It is is when social and cultural protection collapse that disaster and crisis results.

Pittsburgh learnt from London and Seattle and their G20. Besides the city and the University of Pittsburgh have one of the nations top disaster expert and schools in the US. It is not uncommon to turn on the television on any given day and hear discussions on disaster preparedness and management and as a student of disaster, I am so pleased with the city's approach. overreaction until something bad happens and we search for those to blame. When It comes to disasters or crises, I prefer overreaction, At least it is much easier to recover from that than having to explain as Mayor Nagin had to after Katrina what happened and always what happened - we did not prepare enough, did not take it serious enough and since we cannot tell with certainty when it can go all wrong, as 9/11 taught us. We need to leave no stone unturned to avert disasters and crises and so I say overreaction all the way

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Late but busy 2009 season

As if to make up for the late start, three storm are now churning in the region. Ana appears to heading for Dominica. A storm watch has been issued. My wife is at Sir Grantley International Airport, Barbados waiting for her flight home. All scheduled flight for this afternoon are still on. Flights for Monday have been cancelled.

As I write it appears that the rains have begun but they are not Ana's rains just yet. Heavier rains, flooding, landslides and mudslides for which Dominica is known is expected. The rugged mountainous terrain amplifies the orographic lifting effects and results in torrential rains. The two death from last hurricane season was the result of a landslide that buried a mother and her son. Interestingly, these two were in a shelter and went back home to collect some stuff and met with their demise.

One needs to assess one's surroundings to ascertain that there is little threat from slides and floods and swelling rives. Dominica has 365 rivers and so during storms and hurricanes every stream becomes a raging threatening weapon. Fortunately, the same mountainous terrain aids drainage. Usually, DOWASCO shuts off the water supply to reduce the effect of turbidity or sedimentation. Please ensure there is enough drinking water for three to four days. Electrical power may be out, so please ensure that you have alternative light sources - avoid open flames. Be sure you have cooking gas, and petrol in your vehicle. If you feel unsafe go to a shelter - a list of shelters are in the newspapers and have been included in the newspapers for the past few weeks. Call the weather hotline 447 5555 for a shelter near you. if necessary, leave for a shelter before the storm wind and rain begin

Stay on high alert. Never underestimate the power and propensity of a storm to inflict damage. Take very precaution.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Typhoon Morakot and local response in Taiwan

As the aftermath of the Typhoon Morakot in Taiwan emerges, I am thinking of our friend, Kent who lives there. We received an email from him last week. That was just before the storm. I reckon power may be out and given the carnage, very little else may be working communication wise. The paralyzing nature of these tropical storms is highlighted. I am not sure how well the nation-wide disaster preparation activities worked but what emerges is the impact of the local response to the approach of the disaster trigger.

Surprising to the early responders are the number of people found alive in some of these remote village swept and buried by mudslides, triggered by the storm. Local people appeared to have been well aware of the vulnerabilities and evacuated themselves ahead of the storm. Whether this was a knowledge of the local dialects or the result of experiences with similar storms in the past, the response appeared to be appropriate but came as a surprise. Empowering local people and awareness of local vulnerabilities are probably more effective in disaster response, the centralized control. The use of local authorities in Dominica to organize and respond to disasters is the result of chronic exposure to disasters and learning from experience where to focus disaster activities.

The site of hotel collapsing on the edge of torrent of water and silt is another reminder of the importance of local action on the approach of a storm. Learning that the entire hotel had been evacuated before the collapse is astounding. It would be interesting to learn how that was done, what were the sign or circumstances that indicated they needed to do that and where did the move the people to and what were their reactions to what happened to that hotel in light of their decisions to evacuate would be instructive in future.

The impact of the typhoons on the infrastructure is spectacular and shows that the combined forces of wind and water and trigger the collapse of social and cultural protection and put lives and property at risk. Kudos to those who had the presence of mind to take action and saves lives.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Disasters, emergencies and cell phones

We (Dr. MCClure and I) spent the last year and a half discussing emerging technology and its role in disaster mitigation and response. one such technology is the cell phoneIt is hard to tell, given the pace of cell phone evolution, how best to use what is available to reduce hurricane damage and in particular loss of lives. As cell phones become ubiquitous, they provide wonderful opportunities to reach a large number of people at the same time. LIME formerly Cable and Wireless (Dominica) Ltd., has been to my mind at the forefront of using text messaging for advertising and promotion both for its own purposes and for local business in Dominica particularly those with which it has some affiliation. Recall, it was Cable and Wireless after Hurricane David in 1979, after its infrastructure was completely destroyed moved into direct dialling and made Dominica, the first country in the world to go distance direct dialling (DDD) completely.

In collaboration with the DBS radio, the national radio station, the company provides public service announcement for disaster preparedness. I also believe they have begun to use text messaging via mobile phones to transmit disaster preparedness announcements and alerts. Call this being at the forefront. The company has also run its cables underground to ensure that during disasters there is uninterrupted service. Lessons learnt from past disasters.

The University of Pittsburgh has a voluntary emergency alert for which students can sign both via Internet and mobile phones. These provide alert when emergencies exist. To date I have received two alerts. For one of those I was in class when my mobile went off (vibrate of course)with the alert. Interestingly, mine was the only one. Having related the information to the class, I wonder what would have happened had the threat been real and no one had received that text alert. Pitt is huge and there is no better system available in an open campus to reach students all at once than through mobile phones. It is unfortunate given the nature of school violence and the open campus that such a service is not compulsory for all students. Timely information in the face of disaster or emergency can result in reduced impact and loss of lives.

The current impasse in Iran and the caveats placed on mainstream media have again brought the mobile phone center stage but it also brought twitter with it. Imagine how much the world would have missed and how much carnage would have gone on unreported. Who knows the impact cell phones and twitter may be having in saving lives in Iran.

Recently, I signed up for facebook and found my long lost friends, including my college roommate. These days smart phones allow one to navigate the Internet. I am sure you will guess that I own, and for while now, one of these smart phones. Any disaster savvy person should own one and I imagine with the push of button be able to warn friends of impending danger.

A few years ago, I prepared a policy paper on the use of cell phones in Dominican schools. I still believe in this respect that it should be monitored and managed but I also believe with increasing threats in and to schools, mobiles can be useful tools in helping to keep children safe; in alerting parents. Equipped with GPS technology these phone can quickly provide information on evacuation routes and assist in navigation and travel especially in unknown territories. Kids hands have become so proficient on these ting key pads, they can send messages with alacrity. They may be able to help save their lives and those of their friends. I imagine we cannot turn the tide on these apparatuses and the concept of them as gadgets have faded. These are mobile phones with the technology to help save lives and reduce the impact of disasters and emergencies.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Yesterday marked the start of the Atlantic- Caribbean Hurricane season. Several storms have been named and forecasters believe it may be an average season but with some intensity. That may be some good news. FEMA has tested its readiness but indications are that coastal regions in the US have not recovered from the ravages of the last season. Cuba and Haiti may be worse off still having been overrun by multiple storms during the 2008 season as well. These are the some of the indicators of the chronic exposure and the vicious cycle of vulnerability, poor, small and developing countries face. There appears to be little time and resources to recover fully and prepare for the next season. Last year's damages and debris are about to meet this year's. Interestingly once these storms enter the Caribbean Sea, the almost landlocked water body results in increased water temperature, hurricane strength and intensity. Any outlet will be land-based and so a country or countries around the Caribbean Basin is sure to come in for a hit. The results are never pretty. It is obvious that the mitigation - preparation approach to reduce disaster impacts in this case appear to be theoretical. They are costly and for countries having to make decisions between life's basic necessities and preservation of vital assets in the face of imminent disaster, the options are grim. Disasters for them are not events. They are the daily vagaries of life,accentuated by storms, floods, earthquake, and the risk of that happening is present for six month of each year. If prediction for global temperature increases are correct that exposure might be more that six months in the forseeable future. Poor, coastal regions are vulnerable, small islands are also vulnerable. So it's those social-cultural, economic and political issues that constitute the disaster, the collapse of related protection- in essence, it is the vulnerable - people and country who endure the disaster. The literature is suggesting that we focus on the vulnerable, not on the event, and since in my estimation the exposure here is chronic, I suggest further we make concerns about vulnerability the center of decisions, operations and a way of life. Succeeding generations have to be taught and nurtured on vulnerability and its reduction. Education takes center stage in this approach but education itself is often a victim of these vagaries and for succeeding generation, futures are jeopardized, which in turn jeopardized the welfare of nations and generations after that. The opportunity for securing livelihoods and for sustained learning on vulnerability is lost when education facilities and system are destroyed or disrupted as a result of disasters. Recovery can be hard and long, debilitating for children, teachers and administrators and politicians. I propose that the situation is such that relief is never designed for longterm recovery; education is not a high priority in relief efforts and that recovery of educational facilities is expensive. Funding and catastrophic risk coverage are also inadequate to meet recovery cost in a timely manner. The disruption and recovery can last over five years as evidence seems to indicate. Whether these new facilities meet building codes and standards and whether the resources are available to maintain these standards over time given the annual exposure to disaster triggers is suspect. In the meantime,as this season unfolds I wait to see what lessons were learnt and how countries recover from the devastation.

Monday, April 6, 2009

L'Aquila's Nightmare

The advice that people should take cover under tables and remain indoors during an earthquake is redundant. More people die in collapsed structures during earthquakes than from falling debris. As in a fire, people need to clear occupied buildings as quickly as possible, while avoiding stampedes where these buildings may be crowded. The scene in L'Aquila, Italy in horrendous and a reminder of what happened in China last year.

As every expert in education in emergencies know too well, while we are concerned about the dead, injured and homeless, we share an even greater concern for the children, their coping skills and the impact of the disaster on their homes as well as their schools. Often children have to deal with both disruptions and in silence. The kinds of support and resources available to children in the developing world may not and often are not available to children in the rest of the world. They suffer in silence on account of their resilience. Children may be resilient but I believe they bear the scars long after we have moved on to the next disaster

Children who witness abuse, we are told, tend to grow up to be abusers and children who were consistently exposed to domestic violence without intervention tend to become violent themselves. Imagine what happens to children debilitated by disaster after disaster.

School are places where children can learn to cope and is the closest thing to what is perceived as normal for them. Any disruption in schooling can mark a prolonged return to normalcy for them. Restoring school places and teaching children to cope is essential for ensuring sustainable approaches to disaster response and mitigation. School based approaches must focus on teaching children how to protect themselves and others not teaching them about disasters. They need to become instinctive to these threats particularly in region with chronic or recurring exposure to and incidence of disasters.

Flooding in Fargo, ND

I have been searching for information on schools in the flooded areas of North Dakota and I have not been able to find: how many schools were flooded? Where are the students and teachers? What provisions were made for them to continue their schooling. While disasters are more prevalent in developing countries, the impact in developed countries are the same, destruction, displacement and disruption. How prepared were the North Dakota school districts in areas affected by this disaster? What was flooded and what kinds of learning and teaching and other materials were lost? This information is hardly priority and it may take a while before we know what happened to schools, children and their teachers in the ravages of the waters of Fargo:In the meantime, instruction time is being lost.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Plane Down, All Safe

Unlike many, yesterday, I came home not knowing what had happened on the Hudson River. I turned on the television and immediately, I stood immobile. How could anyone have survived this, you think? Oh yeah they could. In New York. the experience with 9-11 have given people an awareness of what is happening with aircraft. It isn't suprising that so many saw that plane as it descended into the river. New Yorkers knew since 9-11for outside help may not be available. Disasters are disruptive and so help may not be able to get to the site from the outside.

The Hudson River is a site of constant traffic. They may have been several or near disasters as a result. Experience and knowledge garnered over the years have bequeathed operators with the ability to respond. Their training and experience of these ferry crew and their knowledge of hyperthemia has taught them to spring into action. The immediacy of the response averted what could have been fatality by another cause. Consequently, the response was all local and it goes to the heart of effective response during disasters. Not to be forgotten are the skills and composure of the captain and crew - the captain's experience as a former figher pilot, a glider instructor, forty (40) years of flying and the owner of safety consultant firm.

This is a classical example of how disaster response works and it works because all of those involved have disaster built into their daily operation - not something that happen to their operations but something integral to their operations. Chris Argyris noted that people learn when they do what they say they know. On the Hundson River, everyone seems to have done what they knew and it worked. What worked as well was the cooperation among strangers and the calmness of those involved. That is learning and this is how we begin to build resilience.