Few times in recent history have such a variety of severe natural hazards caused so much destruction. Few times in remote history have storms come from all directions. But in spite of the grave possible damages, the preparation and response in the Virgin Islands have been noteworthy.
Several questions come to mind. Who bears the responsibility for protecting the people, infrastructure and other assets from the impact of natural disasters? Who should manage the information from the early warning of tropical storms, to mitigation of such hazardous disasters? Should the same agencies or institutions be responsible for the immediate response to disasters as well as the task of promoting disaster reduction?
For many of us, it is clear that in a disaster, very skilled and highly trained personnel from public institutions and private organizations — including firemen, police, technical services, volunteer organizations — activate to respond to the emergency situation. It is clear that they take the lead in relief actions, including search, rescue, emergency medical response, sanitation, handling and distribution of emergency supplies, deployment of temporary shelters, etc. But it was made very clear with each disaster, and specifically with Hurricane Lenny that a collaborative response of private and public institutions yields the highest return as we answer each of the questions.
Who bears the responsibility for protecting the people, infrastructure and other assets from the impact of natural disasters?
How wonderful it was to hear of the rescue of the tourist who was hanging on to the rocks with a raging sea bashing him about. The police could not get to him by land due to the impassable roads. Utilizing our effective means of communication, radio, the police called for assistance from anyone in the area of Carambola. The private dive shop and their divers responded. A rescue was made. A visiting tourist physician administered emergency care. A happy ending.
The raging sea of Hurricane Lenny trashes the Frederiksted pier, with waves estimated at 20-25 feet, packing tons of pressure. A Navy buoy bounces perilously towards homes and businesses on Strand Street. The governor reports that HOVENSA L.L.C. will assist the original contractor of the pier to mend the damaged section in time for Harbor Night, one week after the storm.
The fragile tourist industry will be strengthened by a visit of the Destiny. And the buoy, the center of international news instead of pictures of destruction, will be a tourist attraction. And HOVENSA, often criticized for its lack of contribution, will once more go beyond the call of duty to work cooperatively with the government to insure the Destiny can dock at the Ann E. Abramson Marine Facility.
Living in Frederiksted, which it is stated was hardest hit, I saw crews clearing the roads, hammering on galvanize and helping neighbors clean up. One of the nurses who works with me lost her home when the sea shattered its front. Her husband's back was bad and the nurse had fractured her kneecap.
We spent most of yesterday helping them secure their valuables. Five young people, ranging in ages 14-20, assisted. They loaded truckloads of personal effects for the couple. These youngsters worked tirelessly with joy and even with a good deal of humor. They pulled, loaded, and carted without any complaints. I felt proud to see young Virgin Islanders with such a positive and helpful attitude.
At times it is not what you do, but how you do it. These youngsters labored with joy. Their only reward was a hot meal and a ride home. They were there to help this couple at their most vulnerable moment. These youngsters, as well as all of the public and private employees who helped with clean up and traffic control, exemplified a true community spirit. The couple had an opportunity to bathe and eat a hot meal.
Can you imagine how important these simple, taken-for-granted activities were for them? Today, their spirits are better and they will be looking for a place to rent. Hopefully, they will find something soon.
It would appear clear, from the above stories, that the Virgin Islands has effective systems to respond to the needs of the affected population. Private businesses and individuals, public institutions and services, and young people, demonstrating that our future may be brighter than we perceived, worked in harmony, rapidly responding to the crisis. We all bear the responsibility.
Who should manage the information from the early warning of tropical storms, to mitigation of such hazardous disasters?
Hurricane Hugo taught us how vulnerable we were when we were cut off from receiving and giving information. We heard stories about St. Croix that were clearly fabricated and very damaging. We heard that we were a people who looted, with masses of people demonstrating civil disobedience. There were headlines in the New York Post of September 21,1989, "Anarchy in St. Croix." President Bush sent in U.S. troops to American soil for the first time in 20 years "to quell riots."
We were impotent, unable to tell the true story. We had no means of communication. Although a very well designed population-based study post-Hugo documented that the overwhelming majority did not participate in any looting, the people of St. Croix were already injured by both a natural disaster and a man-made disaster.
Managing effectively any type of an emergency means managing information. In the medical field, we know this well when we investigate incidents to detect outbreaks of diseases. The same management skills are needed from the early warning of the storm to the clean up. What was once limited to local media reports are now available instantaneously by satellite and the Internet. The accuracy and quality of the information becomes a major challenge.
Hurricane Lenny created such a challenge and the Virgin Islands community was ready. The governor was heard on the BBC, CBS, CNN and other media, reporting that we had a serious visit from Hurricane Lenny but we were prepared and resilient. We take on the strength of that which we overcome. We proved that with Hurricane Lenny.
And lastly, should the same agencies or institutions be responsible for the immediate response to disasters as well as the task of promoting disaster reduction?
The separation of responsibilities of emergency response versus disaster reduction has been hotly debated. It is my opinion that the Virgin Islands has chosen properly in separating these responsibilities. VITEMA is responsible for emergency response and Project Impact for mitigation or disaster reduction.
Emergency response requires logistical skills, speed, decisive action and a disciplined structure. Most of these skills are often combined in the armed forces such as the National Guard, Police, etc.
Risk reduction or disaster prevention and mitigation present a different challenge. Here the actors are policy makers, financial institutions, long-term planners, engineers and architects and, of course, governmental institutions. The skills to influence the decision-making process at all levels to reduce vulnerability require an approach and skills that often differ from search and rescue or distribution of emergency rations.
Poor construction standards in schools, hospitals or housing; proper land use and planning, particularly with respect to location of facilities and homes to less vulnerable areas; improved insurance information; water, power and telephone quality of service; proper sewage systems; mitigation for boating and marina interests; government-wide facility planning; protection of historical documents; and the right legislation require a different dialogue and skill set.
Realizing that there is overlap and mutual dependency of emergency response to disaster prevention and reduction does not negate the importance of the separation of these responsibilities to different agencies.
Again, the Virgin Islands is doing it right. The creation of Project Impact has created the right mix to meet the challeng
e of risk reduction or disaster prevention, while VITEMA meets the challenge of emergency response. Disaster reduction as well as emergency response is based on a strong commitment and participation by all components of the society. It is an enhanced, knowledgeable and well planned cooperative effort, among experts in science and technology and among different sectors of the public administration and of private business.
At the opening ceremonies of Project Impact, the Executive Director, Lynn Spencer of Stepping-Stones, spoke to the issue. Why do we need Project Impact? She spoke about VITEMA and FEMA and other federal agencies that are committed to disaster assistance and reducing disaster losses. She stated these agencies realized that they could not do it alone. Project Impact seeks to change the way we deal with natural disasters. Project Impact will reduce the personal and economic costs of disasters by bringing together community leaders, citizens and businesses as partners to transform our community into a disaster-resistant community. Project Impact clearly states that each one of us can make a difference.
Project Impact is a stepping stone, a catalyst, for us as a people to have the tools to deal with the challenges of a disaster and to know that we have done our best to prepare before a disaster strikes. Project Impact creates a new culture that we all can be proud of — the culture of prevention and risk reduction against disasters.
Cora L. E. Christian, MD, MPH is a Steering Committee member of Project Impact.


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