Beyond disaster to preparedness

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Above: Tropical weather systems Hurricane Norma, left, on the Pacific Ocean side of Mexico; Jose, center, east of Florida; Tropical Storm Maria, second from right, north of South America, and Tropical Storm Lee, far right, north of eastern Brazil, on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017. Image courtesy NOAA-NASA GOES.

Nature has been doing some clean up; from Hurricane Harvey leaving Houston, Texas in the rinse cycle to Hurricane Irma destroying the infrastructure of entire islands, from Hurricane Katia making landfall in Mexico even as an 8.1 earthquake shattered lives. And that was just in our region – flooding had hit other parts of the world that lack the media’s attention. Hurricane Jose was waiting for it’s chance, but it decided it wanted to stay in it’s puddle. Fortunately.

Meanwhile, Tropical Storms Maria and Lee are inbound to the Caribbean; their destination still parts unknown.

There is a lesson in the latter. Barbuda and St. Martin got hit with a category 5 hurricane, the strongest in recorded history, and it made short work of structures that the Chief Architect of the Government of Montserrat contends are well built. But the media attention was focused on where it had not yet hit. It was focused on Florida.

For those of us who are paying attention, it’s business as usual. Relief efforts around the world, those promised bandages that sometimes take form, always follow the hearts of minds of the public. And the hearts and minds of the public follow the world much more quickly than relief gets to the affected areas.

Trinidad and Tobago dodged the bullet, the troubles of Brett already forgotten like the last price increase of doubles. A tropical storm had flooding in South Trinidad that did threaten life. Imagine a hurricane. When was the last price increase of doubles? Or was the price increase of KFC more cataclysmic?

On the Weather WhatsApp group, people were asking if the rain we were seeing had anything to do with Hurricane Irma – a testimony to the thought that everything revolves around our twin island Republic, a lack of understanding of geography and the inundation of Hurricane Irma information being received.

But did we learn anything? No, not really. It isn’t that the lessons weren’t there.

Hurricane Harvey: Planning and Open Data

As Houston, Texas still recovers from flooding, it’s become well known that unregulated growth was largely responsible. Lack of appropriate planning for drainage should be patently obvious. Let’s give Jack his jacket on this one – that’s being addressed in at least Siparia, though how well that works is to be determined.

Open Data has been playing a large role in the recovery of Houston:

Open data has become a crucial part of emergency response to natural disasters. This week, Hurricane Harvey is demonstrating how robust open data systems can help any city cope with and recover from disaster.”

We do have Open Data in our draft National ICT plan, though it’s not explicit in the draft National Emergency Communications plan. In fact, I had to track backwards to find in the draft National ICT plan to find that the Ministry of Public Administration and Communications (MPAC) is responsible for open data, and that this is not mentioned in the draft Emergency Communications plan. The bureaucratic link to it may exist somewhere through the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (TATT), but it’s as unclear as flood waters.

To what end? Where is the data? A check on doesn’t show much in the way of open data. Where is the GIS data that belongs to every citizen, paid for by the government? Putting data up there, too, is only a part of the issue – where the data comes from and how it was collected has to be above question. It wasn’t too long ago that I scrutinized the NAVDEMCO data and found it wanting.

There is work to be done.

Hurricane Irma

Barbuda is uninhabited for the first time in 300 years after Irma. Let that sink in.

I watched an expat complaining on Facebook about Florida Power and Light (FPL) not having electricity up during and after the storm – so far removed was he from his home’s T&TEC that he forgot that the nuclear reactor was still up and running, undamaged, and the only trouble was the grid. He also seemed to forget that he had the luxury of internet access to get on Facebook to complain about the lack of electricity.

No, I’m not making that up. I wish I were.

We would likely not do as well. As it happens, the day after Irma made landfall in Florida, a storm’s lightning strike took out electricity in parts of South Oropouche. There I was, in enforced solidarity with people without electricity in places affected by Irma, reflecting on the fact that I still had a roof over my head – unlike many in the Caribbean islands that only fleetingly made the news as Florida took precedence. And while Florida took precedence in the coverage, Mexico was hit by Katia on one side and an 8.1 earthquake on the other. “Oh, by the way”, the media said, “earthquake, possible tsunami, and two dead in Mexico from Katia. Yes, Katia was this other hurricane.”

That’s how easily we could be missed in the news, and that’s how easily we could be lacking in foreign support even as we sent some – what did we do? – to Anguilla and Barbuda, where we even had people complaining about our own poor economic circumstances. Some were of the opinion that we should not send aid, as if one day we may never need it from our neighbours.

FEMA, for the U.S., was already out of money in dealing with Harvey’s wake when Irma showed up, and even as the cleanup of Irma continued – there was Jose.

Hurricane Jose

Even as people began volunteering items for our neighbors through non-profits, Hurricane Jose was spun up – and fortunately didn’t make landfall. A collective sigh went through the region, a soft wind in the doldrums where we all held our collective breath. Had it hit the previously affected islands, there’s no telling how bad things could have ended up.

And through all of this, I was reading the Draft National ICT plan and the draft National Emergency Communications plan, wondering how any of this would bear on Trinidad and Tobago – how in the draft National Emergency Communications plan, regional efforts make up 2 pages of a 37 page document. That’s 5.4%, to give you an idea.

I’ve long been a proponent of CARICOM getting involved at this level, for reasons one would think are obvious: Disasters strike. Some we can watch on television as they spin toward us, some we cannot as they rattle our very being and what we house it in. We should be working more with our CARICOM neighbours.

And to do that, we might want to begin leading rather than following.

Taran Rampersad

Taran Rampersad has over three decades of experience working with technology, the majority of which was as a software engineer.

He is a published author on virtual worlds and was part of the team of writers at that won the Utne Award.

He is an outspoken advocate of simplifying processes and bending technology’s use to society’s needs.

His volunteer work related to technology and disasters has been mentioned by the media (BBC), and is one of the plank-owners of combining culture with ICT in the Caribbean (ICT) through CARDICIS and has volunteered time towards those ends.

As an amateur photographer, he has been published in educational books, magazines, websites and NASA’s ‘Sensing The Planet’.

These days, he’s focusing more on his writing and technology experiments. Feel free to contact him through Facebook Messenger.