Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Recovering from Ophelia: Where does the money come from?

Yesterday, 10 September 2011, I ran into the one of our engineers overseeing the recovery at the barbershop and we struck a conversation about how surprised the was at how hard the St. Joseph community was hit by Ophelia, he was also surprised that one had reported the damage or the extent. While official estimates put damages at over $40 million, his estimation that could be close to $60 million. The question is where is this money going to come from?

The 2008 Medium Term Growth and Social Protection Strategy (GSPS) recognizes the economic and financial impacts of the natural disasters on Dominica and the need to reduce vulnerability to disasters. It makes organizational provision for the management of these disasters by relocating the Office of Disaster Managements to the office of the Prime Minister. It also includes upgrading the staff and the development of disaster policies and plans. It also reassigns the National Emergency Management Organization (NEPO as a Prime Ministerial Function.

The GSPS clearly focuses on a combination of risk reduction and impact measures. However, similar clarity does not exists with respect to funding these measures and that raises questions about the financial resources for resolving the impacts of Ophelia. The GSPA makes provision for for a Disaster Mitigation Contingency Fund. It proposed to allocate 5% of the annual value of the Public Sector Investment Program (PSIP) and to supplement this fund with resources from external source.

At present there is no indication that this fund exist and the external sources to supplement it have not been specified. In the meantime, with the introduction of St. Joseph on the list of areas impacted, the cost of recovery continues to mount. In addition, Dominica has not recovered from the early disaster that involved the collapse of the Mathieu Dam. This collapse destroyed a bridge severely hampered access to farmlands for all farmers in the Layou Valley. The sediments deposited in the Layou river raised the river bed significantly and regularly disrupt West Coast traffic as a result of flash floods.

On Monday 24 October, the Prime Minister announced the People's Republic of China was funding fully the reconstruction of the bridge and the relocation of the families whose homes were located in the direct path of the rivers in Mahaut and Massacre. The elevated river bed remains a problem.Clearly government does not now have the financial resources or equipment to dredge the river and remove the sediments, and may have to depend on private sector in Dominica and externally to do so.

The money remains the issue and therefore undermines sustainability of proposed approaches to response or mitigation. Given the high frequency of these disasters and their inevitability, given the location of Dominica, approaches that integrates disasters into development policies and plans are crucial. Disaster must be intertwined into every aspects of the Dominican life and livelihood. Every effort must be made therefore to provide the kind of financial resources if only as the impetus attracting external support, as an indicator of our seriousness in tackling the recurrent, chronic issues of natural disasters in Dominica

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Understanding local realities in the face of disaster triggers like hurricanes

Hurricane Ophelia passed through the west coast of Dominica on 28 September 2011. This is the third hurricane in the past 12 years whose effects emerge out of the mostly placid Caribbean Sea to blast the West Coast. The first was Lenny in 1999, it severely destroyed roads since it was accompanied by huge sea swells. The second was Omar in 2009; this time fishing boats perished. Yesterday Ophelia brought torrents of rains inundating homes, sweeping away vehicles and destroying roads. The communities of Canefield, Massacre and St. Joseph were hardest hit.

The irony of all three disasters is the surprise disaster coordinators display at the aftermath - a surprise that appears to stem from limited understand of the mechanics of hurricanes, their interaction with element of rain and the Dominican topography. An even deeper misunderstanding is the impact in relation to the location of hurricanes as well as the size of these hurricanes.

On September 28, Ophelia was over 350 miles wide, had tropical force winds extending 175 miles (280km) from the center. Clearly, with Dominica located about 360km south of Ophelia's center and well within depression wind strength, Ophelia was bound to hit.

With Ophelia located due north of Dominica, and since hurricane wind move in an anti-clockwise direction, owing to the effects of the Coriolis Force in the Northern Hemisphere, the effect had to emerge from the Caribbean Sea. That direction was clearly visible from the cloud movement. As the winds passed over the Caribbean Sea they picked up moisture released as water evaporated over the sea surface.

Once these moisture laden winds reached the coastal highlands they were forced to rise (Orographic lifting). When air rises its temperature falls and the amount of moisture it can hold reduces (The amount of moisture air holds depends on its temperature, the higher the temperature, the more it holds), and the excess therefore fell as rain. Yesterday it was torrential rain, given it was emerging out of the nearby warm Caribbean Sea causing disaster.

This happened because of the unplanned nature of housing on the west coast, the hilly topography and the weaknesses in our analysis of data released by the National Hurricane Center, since we merely relay the information. We fail to understand the local dynamics which are not captured in hurricane advisories. Besides our tendency even among leaders to decry attempts at proactive disaster mitigation measures create uncertainty even when the sign of danger are unraveling.

Moreover, we have not appreciated that hurricanes are four-pronged events - wind, rain, floods, sea surges and slope failures.And one or more can emerge when hurricanes hit. Dominica is the the Caribbean country most susceptible to disasters with a 10% change of hurricanes each year of a hurricane (Florida is the highest at 15%). Dominica is brushed or hit directly at least once every 4 years (hurricane city, 2011)

We need to spend money in identifying, recruiting and training in disaster analysis and management up to the Masters level and beyond because of this vulnerability o to disasters triggered by natural events. That training must be broad-based and integrated.

We need to have a sustained program of disaster and emergency education that has its foundation in our curriculum as the present treatment does not go far enough (It is superficial and is not grounded in the Dominican realities). We need to develop a land capability survey and remove people from areas where they are vulnerable because ultimately government has to bear the cost of recovery for many of the victims of these disasters.

We also need to train our current disaster managers and meteorologiists to know it is OK to give expert advice or make strong recommendations for action particularly when events have begun to unfold. we must go further than simply quote weather reports - disaster scenarios must be proposed. The chaos which ensued as people waited long hours in vehicles and under torrential rain and flooding to get out of harms way during Ophelia could have been avoid.

Finally, disasters are not acts of God. They are the actions of men in the face of nature. The simple presence of a hurricane does not lead to disasters. Disasters happen when protections collapse. Giving sound advice is part of that protection and sound advice must be grounded in the Dominican reality. We must do more that relay reports, we must understand their interaction with the Dominican landscape and its people, if we are going to meaningfully contribute to saving life and property.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Who thinks and talks about the children?

Every time, I witness a disaster or its emergencies, I wonder what has happened to schools and the students and teachers who occupy them. The inundation of Memphis and areas within the flood plains of the Mississippi jolts this wonder. Where are the students? It is a question no one asks.

Recently, I attending a workshop on Dominica's earthquake readiness designed to produce an action plan to improve readiness. One of the facilitators presented a scenario in which a 7.9 earthquake jolts Dominica at 11:30 am on a Tuesday morning with a cruise ship in port. I listened as the lone Ministry of Education representative at the workshop as participants described the grim outlook - buildings damaged, evacuation issues in Roseau, loss of power, water, lives and the long and hard response and recovery processes.

I interjected, (until then no one mentioned the children in school. Most of those in the room were parents) that at that time of the morning about 14,000 children and their teachers would be in schools - schools that were not designed along standards for seismic risk and impact reduction, teachers and schools that were untrained in disaster or earthquake response through drills and exercise and unprepared for response; schools without guidelines on what to do and where to assemble in the event of earthquakes. Basically, they would not know how to protect themselves and the students under their charges. Such a dilemma arose in 2008 during the Schuchan earthquake in China in which 10,000 students died, trapped in schools that simply collapsed and probably following the now common practice duck, cover and hold or go under the desk. In the midst of that mayhem, a geography teacher, quietly led his class outside in the open, saving everyone of them because as a Geography teacher, he knew and understood that the orderly evacuation of classrooms is the first and essential step for saving lives during earthquakes.

Floods are less dramatic, more predictive and liek hurricanes can be monitored with updates to threatened areas. The Mississippi Flood are recurrent, not with the degree of frequency with which hurricanes traverse the East Caribbean but certainly with sufficient regularity to know to take pre-emptive action, to have in place frameworks and procedures for dealing with children's education during emergencies of this nature. As in the case of Dominica and earthquake readiness, no one it seems but educators thinks about the children. We ought to be thinking about them because our future security depends on the security of our children.

Recently, I posed the question to my academic advisor, why it is that no one thinks and talks about the children? "Selfishness," she said. We think more of ourselves, preoccupied with us and busy looking after us that we miss the children, we overlook them, we do not think about them and so they are placed at risk. I keep searching for the Mississippi children in the literature and reports on the 2011 floods and they are not there. No one is thinking or talking about the children, it seems. Are we indeed selfishness?