Columns

A culture of disaster preparedness

By Michael Burke

Thursday, January 31, 2013    

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At the start of this year 2013, there was a news release from the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management. We were all being warned to store water because we had entered into the drought period of the year.

For more than two decades I have complained in my columns and radio commentaries that we Jamaicans tend to forget about floods during the dry time and forget about water shortages during the rainy season. And since I have complained in the past, then it is only fair that I commend ODPEM for getting something right. No matter what may be said about the inefficiencies of the public sector, clearly ODPEM is not as inefficient as some other sections.

Still, more needs to be done. We need to develop a perpetual culture of disaster preparedness. But ODPEM does not have the power to instill discipline. Can ODPEM rely on the relevant agencies of the state to instill discipline? I prefer not to answer. Still, the people in the coastal areas are in a dilemma during an imminent storm. Do they evacuate or do they stay and protect their belongings from human predators?

In my day I was a cadet but never a scout. While the scout's motto has always been "Be Prepared", does our lack of preparedness have anything to do with a plummeting interest in uniformed groups particularly scouts in this instance? Were scouts ever sufficiently an intervention in the matter of discipline to create a national culture of disaster preparedness? That is a question for debate.

There needs to be compulsory environmental education in the schools since environmental abuse leads to less rain, more floods and more hurricanes. All environmental issues should be made into songs and poems for the children. Let the children be the ones to show their parents the proper environmental way as happens in Canada.

But how likely is all of this to happen when we add politics to the equation? Politicians anywhere in the democratic world tend to shy away from unpopular decisions. For example, Edward Seaga recently commented that when he was prime minister, the previous government led by Michael Manley had postponed making certain hard decisions. He was referring to the decision of the PNP government not to return to the International Monetary Fund as the IMF wanted the government to do massive lay-offs to get the loan facility.

I do not recall Edward Seaga coming out in defence of laying off workers before the 1980 election, nor would I have expected him to, politicians being politicians. How would he have won the October 30, 1980 elections had he done that?

To be fair to Michael Manley, one of his first acts after becoming prime minister in 1972 was to have inscribed on the one-cent coin (then worth enough to by one "sweetie") the words "let us produce what we eat'. Indeed this was a twist of the famous Jamaica Welfare slogan during the Second World War, which was "eat what you can and can what you can't".

Speaking of Jamaica Welfare (now Social Development Commission), I was asked by a Jamaica Observer reporter if there was ever a nightclub fire in Jamaica in light of the recent disastrous nightclub fire in Brazil. My answer was of the 'Nelsonian' variety (I cannot recall).

However, there was the Gaiety Cinema fire of 1947. Luckily the fire occurred during the daytime but only three of the employees survived the fire. In those days cinemas were very popular and indeed continued to be so until the Internet started to "carry the swing" in the 1990s.

At the time of the Gaiety fire, my mother Mrs Shirley Maynier Burke was employed to Jamaica Welfare, which was at the northeastern corner of Hanover and East Queen Streets, while the Gaiety cinema building still is across the street on the southeastern corner. I heard from my mother that the worst thing she ever saw in her life was witnessing human beings burn to death in that fire.

The Gaiety management had recently barred the windows to stop persons from breaking in and not paying. Employees rushed to the windows only to find them barred while onlookers watched helplessly. And because I grew up hearing about the Gaity fire, I have always been wary of being caught in a crowded building in the event of a fire. My first instinct is to find out where the exits are, not only for the above reason but also because I am asthmatic and in need of fresh air more often than those who are not.

I am happy that the National Arena has two large rollaway doors to the northwest and southwest ends of the building. Does the National Indoor Sports Centre have similar doors? If not, what would happen in the event of a disaster? At least at the stadium a dash can be made for the playing field or the track in a disaster.

In 1968, I was part of a crowd that felt the effects of tear gas in Sabina Park. In constructing buildings to hold large crowds, is there ever input from ODPEM? We Jamaicans are so "happy-go-lucky" that we do not think about such things.

ekrubm765yahoo.com

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