Compare the impact of the sudden emergence of a hole on the Beetham Highway to a tsunami (we should be really thankful that the report of the latter was an error) with all of its horrible implications and you will get a pretty clear picture of how unprepared the country is for a major disaster. On Wednesday, the hole in the Beetham Highway, near the lighthouse, caused chaos for hours on the city streets and some of the major arteries entering and leaving Port-of-Spain. It resulted in the loss of productivity and caused stress and anxiety to hundreds of thousands of people in and around the capital city. Unbelievably and unforgivably, that scenario was allowed to recur yesterday morning. One hole in the highway demonstrated that there are no systems in place for informing the public on the use of the few alternative routes in and out of the city if there is a need for speedy evacuation.
The Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management has as part of its brief, co-ordinating first responses to difficult situations; yet such responses were not forthcoming on Wednesday. For instance, with its capacity to send text messages to the public about potentially disruptive occurrences, the ODPM should have been sending out bulletins on the log-jam and what to do. Why did the Ministry of Transport not arrange extra water-taxi sailings on Wednesday evening and yesterday? Why did the wider government not arrange for staggered work hours for public servants yesterday and today, if necessary? It would surely have been a boon to developing the capacity of the ODPM to have used the situation on the Beetham as a “dry run” for a major disaster. It would have given the agency an invaluable insight into what is required in such circumstances—and done its public image a world of good if it had used the opportunity to inform the public in a proactive manner about the hole on the highway and the traffic situation. Maybe the administration of the ODPM does not sufficiently understand the importance of a disaster agency’s being able to communicate effectively during times of stress and strain. It cannot be that the administration would rationalise its silence on Wednesday on the basis that what happened did not amount to a “national disaster” and therefore excuse itself.
Building capacity, gaining muscle and most of all giving the population the confidence that it is a capable organisation would go a long way if and when the major disaster comes. And on that score, the population should be persuaded to dispossess itself of the notion that “God is a Trini” and therefore guarantees absolute protection from catastrophe. As the experts at the UWI Seismic Unit have been attempting to plant in the national collective mind, Trinidad and Tobago sits squarely on the shifting tectonic plates which cause earthquakes and so, sooner or later, a major earthquake is inevitable. As is also well-known from the Meteorological Office at Piarco, and through annual experiences, a dozen or more named hurricanes blow through the region on an annual basis. One day, this country will lie in the path of one of them. The problem of evacuating the capital city in the face of a storm, a tsunami or some comparable event has been talked about for years and over several administrations. Unfortunately, the talk has stayed at the level of talk. If and when—and no one is attempting to call down such a fate on T&T—a major disaster strikes, the authorities will have left the country at serious risk.