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Hurricane Sandy - a Disaster That Could Have Been Avoided?

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I understand what New Yorkers are going through after being battered by Hurricane Sandy. I understand what Jamaicans and Cubans went through when Sandy made a direct hit on both islands. I understand the helplessness that Haitians feel after being inundated by flood waters from the outer rain bands of the hurricane.

Many times after the passage of hurricanes in the Caribbean I sat in the eerie silence at home with no electricity which meant no radio, television, telephone, refrigerator, or CD player.

I sat there willing my mobile phone battery to keep going. To conserve the fuel, I restricted the standby generator to powering a few low wattage light bulbs so that I did not have to use candles or lamps which are fire hazards.

As a child I remember the big floods of the 1970s when I could see my neighbour's stove and refrigerator floating away and my brave brothers swimming in hot pursuit to rescue them.

As a journalist covering hurricanes, I've been in stricken hotels where the only water available was in the swimming pool.

Preventing crises

I personally enjoy a good roof-rattling, eardrum-bursting thunderclap. The rule of thumb is to count the seconds between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder and you will know how many miles away it is. One second equals one mile. One night I saw the lightning and heard the thunder at the same time. It was directly overhead, sizzling through the air with a burning odour. I jumped out of bed, grabbed the fire extinguisher and ran outside. I thought the house was on fire. But it was only the light fittings and telephones that were burnt to a crisp.

Extreme weather events such as hurricanes are powerful and demand respect.

I am attracted to the extreme reaction of nature: hurricanes, earthquakes, storm surges, and volcanoes. I think the most beautiful sight is a pyroclastic flow (super-hot rock) majestically cascading down the side of a volcano. Awesome!

Earth has always reacted this way and will continue to react for centuries to come. In the past we had mega-tsunamis with waves of more than 1,000 feet high and cataclysmic volcanic eruptions such as Krakatau that took out an entire island.

The difference then and now are us, human beings. The world has become populated with quite a lot of people and it is the impact on life and property that is of great concern now.

Dr Unni Krishnan, Head of Disaster Response with the children rights organisation Plan International says while we may not be able to prevent these events from happening, we have the power to prevent disasters from becoming humanitarian crises.

It's called Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR).

Once we understand what our vulnerability is to the hazard we can prevent the crisis from occurring. So, if I lived on an idyllic Caribbean beach which experiences high waves each winter then I will be vulnerable to those waves. If I built a very sturdy house on stilts then I reduce the chances of getting swept away or my house destroyed. Better yet, if I move my house inland, I will be out of the reach of those dangerous waves. That's the principle of DRR - reducing our risk or exposure to extreme events.

Sandy left a trail of damage, destruction and deaths in her wake in the Caribbean but it could have been much worse. Jamaica's prime minister Portia Simpson acknowledged this. Buildings in the Caribbean are stronger and more resilient today thanks to a new building code.

Preventing loss of life is also part of the DRR process. Of the 70 people who died in the Caribbean, 50 of them (71%) were in poverty-stricken Haiti which is highly vulnerable to all types of disasters.
Educating the public in DRR leads to reduction in the loss of life.

'Fascinating and awesome'

Last week at the Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Indonesia, children were at the forefront explaining how education on DRR saved them and their communities.

In Cuba, DRR is also integrated into the curriculum which has reduced the number of deaths, according to the Oxfam America report Cuba: Weathering The Storm.

"Natural disasters are not straight forward any longer," Head of Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change at Plan International, Jacobo Ocharan, told me.

"We understand that in a food crisis, for example, more than drought and poor harvests need to be considered. We also look at access to food and food prices on the open market but today climate change and weather variability are bringing more uncertainty into DRR.

"This means that when we design resilience programmes for communities we have to build in more flexibility to account for all the uncertainties of today's changing climate."

Does this mean that in the USA hurricane preparedness might now have to be taught in eastern seaboard states north of Florida and the Carolinas? Does it also have to extend to inland states as far as 50 miles away from the coast? There are many uncertainties which the DRR community ought now to consider.

As nature gets more ferocious in this changing climatic era, our antidote to an increasing number of disasters has to be DRR which for the experienced Caribbean engineer, Tony Gibbs means that "great hurricanes and earthquakes (can) be experienced as fascinating and awesome events which, nevertheless, do not lead to disasters."