By Marcus M. Mottley, Ph.D.
In the past five years we have seen major crises hit many countries around the world. These crises include hundreds of thousands of deaths and billions of dollars of devastation due to the Asian Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita (in the USA, Central America & Mexico), and the Pakistan Earthquake. In addition to those natural calamities, countries around the world are faced with an increase in terrorist acts and serious criminal activities which threaten their populations.
The countries which experienced these natural and manmade disasters were unprepared for the scope of the death, destruction and large scale human suffering that followed. This is quite evident as the world watched in horror at the incompetence, poor logistical coordination, inadequate decision making and woeful preparation exhibited in the Gulf States of Louisiana, Mississippi and even Texas.
Although Caribbean countries like Antigua and Barbuda have largely been spared the death and devastation from natural or manmade disasters, it is a certainty that they are at risk. In recent years Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica and Cuba suffered severe damages due to hurricanes which are the bane of our existence here in this region of the world.
There are other dangers which threaten the world’s landscape including the Caribbean. These include HIV-AIDS which according to many reports is already at unacceptably high levels in some Caribbean territories. But, the threat of the H5NI virus, or Bird Flu, and the new threat of the H1N1 – Swine Flu virus is a potential pandemic waiting to happen. Many experts believe that the issue is not ‘if’ but ‘when’.
With the potential for such disasters to be unleashed on our shores, Antigua and Barbuda might not be as prepared as we could be to respond quickly and resourcefully in order to protect our citizens and limited the fall out!
The questions that countries like Antigua & Barbuda must ask are these:
1. Are we prepared to handle serious natural disasters, terrorist acts of violence, and pandemics like the ‘Bird Flu’ and ‘Swine Flu’?
2. Are we prepared to handle the medical, psychological, economic, ecological and financial impacts of such disasters?
3. Do we have the logistical capabilities in place now to respond to such disasters?
4. Do we have resource stockpiles in place?
5. Do we have highly trained command and control personnel to lead response, stabilization and recovery activities?
6. Do we have a plan in place now to trigger a multi-agency response to disasters?
7. Do we have alternative communication systems in place to share information with our citizens in the advent of a breakdown in the current communications infrastructure?
The above questions point to a need to boost our capacities and abilities to ably respond before, during and after any natural or man-made disaster.
Here are some other questions:
- What is the scope of our current logistical capabilities to respond to such disasters?
- What types of resource stockpiles do we have in place, how extensive are they and what conditions are they in?
- Do we have a plan in place now to trigger a multi-agency response to disasters?
- What is the state of common understanding among the various agencies regarding their responsibilities during a natural disaster or emergency event?
- What communications mechanisms are in place to bring multi-agency heads together for rapid decision making?
- Who is responsible for convening multi-agency meetings, trainings and forums? Have these meetings taken place? What decisions have been made? What multi-agency agreements are in place?
- To what extent do we have alternative communication systems in place to share information with our citizens in the event of a breakdown in the current communications infrastructure? To what extent do we have communication equipment in place where agencies can communicate across different platforms in an environment where normal systems (like telephones) have been disrupted?
- What is the state of preparedness in Barbuda? What is the capacity of the infrastructure (hospitals, electrical power, communication, law enforcement, food) in Barbuda to respond to and deal with a major disaster? What is the capacity of the infrastructure (for example: communication & transportation) in Antigua to respond to a major disaster in Barbuda?
- Who and/or what triggers the deployment of multi-agency mechanisms, resources, personnel, etc?
- During an emergency who is the command/control czar? Does this position carry the ability of the individual to command and control across ministries and departments and over public and private sector agencies?
The questions posed here are even more important as we consider the importance of tourism to our economy. Undoubtedly, it is crucial that we have the mechanisms in place to protect our citizens and our economic infrastructure.
It is also important that we are able to convince those who visit our shores and current and prospective foreign investors that our twin island state is safe and secure, and that we have the infrastructure in place to respond to life threatening and economically damaging emergencies. We must convince them that we have a high capacity of preparedness and responsiveness.
Are we ready?
The hypothesis underlying this article is that we are not. The answers to the questions posed herein are needed quickly. I propose that the Antigua and Barbuda Government find answers to these questions, then determine, develop and implement the critical solutions that may need to be put in place.
Subsequent to that critically needed response I propose that the Government establish and appoint a proven and capable individual to lead the multi-agency task force whose responsibility would be to ensure our continued high level of readiness.