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Trinidad: Local Gov’t downgrades emergency flood level operation

By NEWSDAY

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ws clean up in Greenvale Park, La Horquetta on October 22 after flooding in the community. PHOTO BY LINCOLN HOLDER

(NEWSDAY) — After an intense two weeks of emergency flood response and recovery assistance, the Ministry of Rural Development and Local Government yesterday downgraded its operations from level two to level one.

“I think we did a fantastic job. We were better organised (than previous disasters),” said Jerry David, the ministry’s senior disaster management co-ordinator. David was only recently appointed two months ago to this senior role after the death of his predecessor, Rishi Siew. But he’s no neophyte, having served in the Diego Martin Regional Corporation during the severe flooding in those areas in 2011 and 2012.

The ministry and regional corporations have been working non-stop over the last two weeks, not just clearing debris from roadways and waterways, but they have also been active in helping the Ministry of Social Development do damage assessments. As of Friday, David said, nearly 6,000 assessments had been completed, and claims cheques have already started being distributed to affected people.

“What we did, we have 200 municipal police trainees in Marabella. We put them out in the field. My argument that I used to convince the permanent secretary was that this is not only efficient, it also introduces them and helps them learn about the communities they will eventually be working in anyway,” David said.

As part of the ministry’s planning, he said, the disaster management unit has disaster maps. “Before a disaster happens we can probably tell you where the worst damage will be,” he said. He did, however, acknowledge that this was the first time flooding in places like Greenvale and Sangre Grande was this severe. “This was the first time. You can’t come back from a place you’ve never been. Now that we have been to that place, we can plan,” he said.

Nevertheless, he was grateful for the response of neighbours helping neighbours, “the way it’s supposed to be,” until first responders arrived.

He also praised the response. In some places, he said, with major natural disasters, it can take first responders up to three days to arrive, even in places with more sophisticated disaster response, whereas during these floods, they were on site just a few hours after getting reports (although he did accept that Trinidad is a small island.)

The ministry has three disaster preparedness levels. Level one means each individual regional corporation has enough resources to handle the necessary response and recovery. In a level-two disaster, where more than one regional corporation is affected, the ministry takes over the co-ordination and can also call for resources from other unaffected corporations to assist. For level three, the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) takes over all co-ordination. “Whenever there is a level two all normal routine activities come to a halt and all resources go towards one thing—managing and bringing back communities to normalcy,” he said.

There’s enough equipment in Trinidad to handle a level two disaster, David added, and regional corporations can also call upon private contractors to assist. In the case of last month’s flooding, David said at least six regional corporations were affected, so equipment was seconded from other municipalities. “At 3 am, from the time I got word that there was flooding I was on the phone with the Penal/Debe Regional Corporation asking them to send their boats for us to rescue flood victims,” he said.

David accepted that there will always be criticism of emergency responders, but, he said, “Nobody died. Isn’t that enough for TT to realise that’s a good response. People who were affected within a week got cheques. How can you say that’s not a good response. There was also this overwhelming response from national community. Sometimes we criticise ourselves so much but we have done so much. The state put all its resources to make this work as it has,” he said.

And it’s not just their job to prepare for disaster—people need to take responsibility. “Preparedness has to do with each individual,” he said. Just a simple thing like keeping important documents safe, David noted, is overlooked. “We tell people all the time, put your documents in a sealed plastic container in the event of a flood. Now, we have people lining up to our offices for letters to prove to the different institutions that their documents were damaged and need to be replaced,” he said. The ministry and corporations also regularly give away sandbags and instructions on how to build them but people hardly take them on “until they start to see water.”

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