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Preparation has to be the watchword

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Today, as we mark the 30th anniversary of Hurricane Gilbert's assault on Jamaica, every one of us should make ensure that we are prepared for any eventualities, especially with us being at the peak of the 2018 Atlantic Hurricane Season.

We say a prayer that our brothers and sisters in the Lesser Antilles will be spared loss of lives and extreme damage to property and infrastructure, even as news came yesterday afternoon that Isaac had been downgraded from a hurricane to a strong tropical storm.

According to the National Hurricane Centre in Miami, Florida, “Isaac is moving towards the west, near 14 miles per hour. This general motion is expected to continue through the end of the week. On the forecast track, Isaac should move across the Lesser Antilles and into the eastern Caribbean Sea on Thursday.”

Local meteorologists have said the general forecast is that Isaac will weaken after entering the Caribbean. However, they have cautioned that we should not take our eyes off the system.

That, of course, is sensible advice, and Jamaicans who are old enough will tell you that those among us who shrugged off the consistent warnings from meteorologists as Hurricane Gilbert approached in September 1988 have been more circumspect since then.

Some 54 Jamaicans lost their lives as a result of Gilbert, infrastructural damage ran into billions of dollars, and many people had to wait months before electric power was restored to their homes.

Probably the most graphic description of the devastation that Gilbert unleashed on the island was that by then Prime Minister Edward Seaga who, after flying over the country to survey the damage, likened the situation to the utter destruction of the Japanese city of Hiroshima following the dropping of an atom bomb by the Americans in 1945 as World War II approached its end.

The scale of Gilbert's destruction lies in the fact that its rampage across the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico resulted in 433 deaths and about US$7.1 billion in damage.

Unfortunately, in this region we do not have the luxury of speculating whether hurricanes will hit us. It's just a matter of when. That is why we often use this space to reiterate the importance of preparation, especially when one considers that since 1950 more than 240 hurricanes have hit the region, resulting in massive damage and widespread devastation.

Indeed, the magnitude of the loss is more graphic when measured as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), well above 100 per cent in a few cases. For instance, in Jamaica, Hurricane Gilbert caused damage equivalent to 50 per cent of GDP.

As we have pointed out before, the damage from these disasters is made more acute by the nature and topography of our small islands, most of which are either below sea level or only a few feet above sea level.

Thankfully, local and regional disaster management agencies have, over the years, been doing a good job of making adequate preparations for natural disasters. Also, in recent times, governments have been more receptive to disaster planning, especially because a number of jurisdictions have been seeing the damaging effects of climate change.

However, we can't emphasise enough the fact that every citizen has a duty to be prepared.