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.