Disaster Do Happen...Be prepared!



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By Ronald Jackson

Acting Deputy Director General

Office of Disaster Preparedness

and Emergency Management

January 25, 2005




Jamaica because of its location, geology and geography is prone to several natural hazards.  The major threats include landslides, hurricanes, floods, droughts and earthquakes.  These hazards when combined with situations of high vulnerability usually result in disasters of varying severity.


A natural hazard is a rare or extreme event in the natural environment that adversely affects human life, property or activity to the extent of causing a disaster. (Adapted from OFDA - Introduction to Disasters Training Manual - 1994).   Disasters, which result from natural hazards, are rare or extreme events in the environment that can adversely affect human life, property or our way of life.


Natural Disasters refer specifically to those events in which the impact exceeds a community or a nation’s capacity to respond to them. (Adapted from OFDA Disaster Management Training Programme)


Jamaica has experienced an increase in the frequency of natural events, primarily floods (related to inclement weather, tropical depressions, tropical storms, hurricanes), droughts and landslides over the last 25 – 30 years.  The impact of these hazards has proven to be disastrous in several instances resulting in significant social dislocation and monumental economic losses. Between 1998 and 2004, we have had approximately 10 major weather related disastrous events with significant economic implications.   In 1998, we had three events totalling just under J$200,000,000; in 2001 Michelle resulted in damage valued at 0.8% of GDP and cost us 2.8% of Government revenue and grants; in the year 2002 damage was valued at 0.7% of GDP while in 2004, Hurricane Ivan resulted in damages of J$35 Billion.


Population growth, uncontrolled urbanization and rural and urban poverty have resulted in the development of unplanned settlements in marginal and environmentally sensitive lands (flood plains and unstable slopes).  This pervasive situation has continued almost unchecked for the last sixty years or so due to inadequate planning and environmental management (enforcement of existing legislation), the lack of appropriate institutional, legislative arrangements and political will.


Since natural hazards are a part of our everyday life and cannot be prevented, we are therefore talking about managing or minimizing (the) risks associated with these hazards. We must learn to reduce the risk through the use of appropriate mitigation measures which incorporate planning, forecasting, mitigation and resilient communities.


History of Natural Hazard Management in Jamaica


Prior to the 1970’s the international community defined disaster management more as disaster response and sought to manage disasters after they occurred. Not much was done in the form of mitigating the impact of hazards. The management of response was at that time the responsibility of the military, non-governmental organizations and voluntary organizations.   During the 1970’s and more so in the 1980’s disaster management became more defined as a comprehensive activity involving preparedness reflecting the relationship between development and disasters.


In recent years there has been a shift in the conceptual framework in the management of disasters caused by natural hazards. The focus has been more towards reducing community vulnerability while at the same time ensuring that the requisite capacities still exists to carry out humanitarian response. We cannot eliminate natural hazards, but we still need to cope with the disasters when they do occur.


Jamaica’s conceptual shift was gradual and came about as a result of a major flood event in June 1979 which devastated sections of western Jamaica resulting in 40 deaths and economic losses of US $27 Million (ODPEM National Disaster Catalogue, 2000). This natural disaster signaled the need for the creation of an agency to coordinate, monitor and manage response to hazards and educate the public on all aspects of disasters.   The call for the creation of this agency was strongly supported by the international donor community. The Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Relief Coordination (ODIPERC) was therefore created in 1980 to undertake this mandate.


In 1993 the organisation was renamed Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) a statutory body under the provisions of the Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management Act of the same year. This development occurred during the International Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR), a time when national policy for hazard mitigation was, as it is now, not in place and vulnerability reduction was limited.


The organisation’s mandate became more defined and was outlined as follows: 


  • Develop and implement policies and programs to achieve and maintain an appropriate state of national preparedness for coping with any emergency situation which may affect Jamaica.


  • Encourage and support disaster preparedness and mitigation measures in all parishes in collaboration with the local government authorities, community-based organizations and private and voluntary agencies and organizations.


  • Provide appropriate training programmes and consulting services related to all aspects of disaster preparedness, disaster mitigation, loss reduction, and disaster management.


  • Plan and implement programmes to enhance public awareness and understanding of disaster related issues, emergency management, hazard prevention and other similar matters.


  • Identify and analyze hazards or emergency situations and conduct related operational research into their effects.


  • Establish and maintain and manage mutual assistance and cooperation agreements.


 The organisation’s mandate began to reflect the change in the notion that preparedness and response was an inadequate approach to hazard management. This position had been reached globally following numerous catastrophic events affecting the same countries in quick succession. The management of hazards now consisted of not just the post event stage (response, rehabilitation and reconstruction) but also the pre-event phase (preparedness, risk identification, risk assessment and risk reduction or mitigation).



The National Disaster Management mechanism was developed incorporating sixty-four (64) government, non-government and international agencies and institutions operating in the Jamaican society with specific areas of responsibility in the management of hazards.


The Mechanism functions at (3) three levels:


  • National Level
  • Parish Level
  • Community Level


The Parish Level mirrors the National Level to some extent; however the policy level decisions and activities related to public awareness, prevention and response are guided by the Local Government system of governance.


At the Community Level, it was realized that most Disaster Prevention and Mitigation action require community acceptance and initiative.  The ODPEM therefore developed a community programme that initially sought to provide communities with the ability to manage local interventions in preparedness and response.  It was further accepted that communities are generally knowledgeable about their own environment and coping mechanisms and ways to reduce vulnerabilities. The community would therefore become self reliant and needed only National, Regional and International efforts to support them. Community Disaster Management Planning has now evolved to include hazard identification, vulnerability assessments and hazard mitigation activities.


This model of Disaster Management could be viewed as “Comprehensive” in design and principle, as it sought to develop an integrated management of all hazards especially in light of the fact that one or more agency had a role to play in the process. It also sought to integrate disaster management into the planning and development.


Environmental and development stakeholders are becoming more involved in the subject of disaster management, risks and vulnerability reduction due to its close interaction with natural resources management.




Throughout the twenty five years of Disaster Management in Jamaica we have achieved the following:


  • Implementation of Community Vulnerability Reduction Programmes in several parishes
  • Development of Disaster Management Plans and Policies
  • Relocation of vulnerable populations as a mitigation measure
  • Completion and maintenance of a National Disaster Catalogue and Hazard Database
  • Establishment of a National Programme of Community-Based Disaster Management structures and procedures.
  • Establishment of Community Flood Warning Systems
  • Development and use of Hazard Maps in Planning Process (though quite minimal)



Through the International Donor support we have been able to implement projects aimed at strengthening community and national capacity to identify, mitigate and respond to natural hazards.   The following are significant projects implemented to date:


  • 1991        the Rio Cobre Automated Flood Warning System, stream and river gauges and Flood Warning Plan


  • 1995/1996 the completion of the Montego Bay Storm Surge Maps which shows potential surge heights (CDMP & OAS, USAID). Additionally, Landslide and Seismic Risk maps.


  • 1997          a pilot project on Disaster management Integration in Schools Curricula and designed and produced a disaster management project which put forward disaster management concepts in an easy to understand format and included puzzles, colouring exercises and songs.




  • 1998         Worked along with the USAID/OAS to produce hazard maps for the KMA.  Maps included landslide, storm surge and earthquakes


  • 1999          The National Mitigation Policy developed due to a need for a structures framework to guide the country’s approach to mitigation and will be funded by the OAS and ODPEM.


      1. Provide a focus for a national effort to reduce the impact of disasters
      2. Build a common point of reference for standards, codes, research and terminology
      3. Provide a vehicle for the promotion and advocacy of disaster mitigation and the opportunity for Jamaicans to reduce the impact of hazards on their own communities
      4. Guide, organize and facilitate the diverse activities related to hazard mitigation


·        Community Vulnerability Reduction Programme funded by the European Union, the programme included:

Establish Flood Alert and Flood Warning System

Flood Plain Mapping

Strengthening of the community zonal system

Community training for the project area and landslide mapping


·        Vulnerability reduction Programme for Pedro, St. Ann activities included:

Cleaning of sinkholes

Community training in Basic Disaster management

Preliminary project proposal



·        1998          Rio Grande Valley activities included:

The establishment of a network of rain and river gauges to improve data collection and management in the valley


A community-based and alert system for flooding for the communities in the Rio Grande Valley


Establishment of a community disaster management committee to monitor and utilize the early warning system in the Rio Grande Valley


Training of the community in the use of the system, hazard and vulnerability maps, environment management and disaster management


Extended coverage of the disaster catalogue from 1500-2000


·                          Portmore evacuation plan 2000 objectives were:

Activate run and staff four Emergency Operation Centres


To test the national warning system relating specifically to the evacuation of Portmore


To test telecommunication network and resources


·        2000-2001: Loss reduction on the community level DIPECHO, and the community disaster management strengthening project, build disaster management capacity in the high risk communities in August Town, Gordon Town/Mavis Bank and Harbour View/ Rockfort in Kingston and St. Andrew. Activities included vulnerability mapping, surveys, training, implementation of mitigation sub-projects


·        2002 - The USAID/OFDA project to implement a disaster mitigation programme aimed at minimizing the impact of flooding in Fort George, St. Mary , through the  promotion and implementation of a disaster mitigation plan and the implementation of a Flood Alert Data Network



·        2002 - UNDP/GOJ Support to Community Based Disaster Management Project (UNDP) - A three year community based initiative. Its aim is to strengthen capacities at the national and community level, to conduct vulnerability programmes in selected flood-prone communities in the parishes of St. James, St. Ann and Clarendon.  The project also involves landslide mapping in St. Mary.



Challenges to the Management of Natural Hazards


Jamaica has undergone twenty-five years (25) of Institutionalized Hazard or Disaster Management.  However, while we have achieved much there are still numerous challenges to overcome. Jamaica as is the case with our Caribbean and Latin American counterparts have sought to modernize the National Disaster Organization.  Efforts have been made to capitalize on the available technology and lessons learned locally and internationally.   These efforts have been stymied by lack of resources, political support and inconsistent budgetary support.


After 25 years, we are still as a country heavily post-event driven.   Other countries such as Belize and St. Lucia have been focusing on mitigation activities such as the retrofitting of shelters, vulnerability analysis of government assets.  In South America, they are advanced in developing Vulnerability and Risk Management Indicators and have been linking their hazard mitigation programmes into their macro-economic policies by carrying out cost benefit analysis on the mitigation projects that they have been implementing. The Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), under the Adaptation to Climate Change in Caribbean Project have undertaken a programme of training CARICOM member countries to incorporate Natural Hazard Impact Assessments in Environmental Impact Assessments using experiences from countries in the south Pacific.   A The challenge now is to integrate this into our planning and development policy where it becomes the norm.  Too often preliminary steps have been taken, and then the programmes are set aside because of lack of funding or commitment on the part of policy makers.


While we have seen a decrease in the number of deaths associated with major disaster events over the last 19 years (single digit deaths prior to Hurricane Ivan 2004), the costs associated and the number of persons displaced or affected has steadily risen. Several conclusions may be drawn:


  • The public awareness programme aimed at preparedness activities are effective
  • There are hardly any structural mitigation measures in place
  • An inherent lack of Hazard and Risk Management principles in Development Planning
  • Poorly planned development across the country
  • Highly vulnerable infrastructure
  • Inadequate production and utilization of Hazard Maps in decision-making.
  • Slow progress in tackling our Solid Waste Management problem


While many of our officials and citizens are aware of the dimensions of our natural hazards problems, the joint efforts have been less than comprehensive. The progress we have made has been more or less as a result of project intervention through regional organizations such as CDERA and the International Donor Community.


The shortcomings in our mitigation efforts is primarily attributable to the absence of baseline information on much of our hazards, inadequate legislation, outdated development approval processes and budgetary constraints.





We have realized that the management of natural hazards is a long term integrated and developmental issue. It has been accepted that the management should occur at the national, sectorial and community level. We can reduce the economic effects of disasters by reducing the level of vulnerability of public infrastructure (drains, retaining walls, bank erosion and infrastructure).   National budgets are not infinite, hence the community has a key role to play in the reduction of the vulnerability of their community. In achieving the goal of loss reduction through comprehensive hazard management we will have to focus on addressing factors as outlined below: 




The people who are most vulnerable to natural disasters are the poor, who have limited resources for avoiding losses.  Environmental degradation resulting from poverty exacerbates disaster impacts, which necessitates greater attention from policy makers and more support from donor agencies for disaster prevention action.   Innovative approaches are needed; emphasis should be given to the programmes to promote community-based approaches, which empower poorer communities to protect themselves. This is however not at the expense absolving the state of its functions.  Over the last two decades or so we have been using the term sustainable development in terms of use of our natural resources and in terms of our planning. This in any estimation is an unattainable goal.  Can we have sustainability without eradicating poverty? Can we seriously prevent the poor from moving back into Portland Cottage? The poor will always occupy available marginal and vulnerable plots of land? Can we translate the words into actions?




Public awareness of natural hazards and risks, regarded as the driving force for prevention action, should be solidly grounded in the best scientific and technological information.  Methodology is a key factor in increasing political sensitivities toward the need for disaster reduction measures and policies.





For some types of hazards have saved many lives.  Warnings can be used to avoid disaster rather than just respond to them.  Special attention should be given to delivering the right message to the right place at the right time.



Education and Training


Education and training for disaster reduction is a key, crosscutting issue that must be an integral part of all programmes.  Creative use of films and videos, as well as, modern dissemination means, can be especially effective.  Information must be seen as authoritative and credible.


Risk Management


Risk management should be better integrated into overall development and environmental planning.  Cost effectiveness of proposed actions is an essential consideration.  Post disaster recovery and reconstruction provide that opportunity and resources to implement prevention and mitigation for natural disaster reduction as an essential component of development. 













  • Expand the process of data collection and analysis on hazards at specific locations. This process should then be used to inform the decision making process.




  • Need to develop the technical expertise in country at the National and Sector level in respect to techniques in vulnerability assessment for use in Natural Hazard Mitigation.




  • Several Hazard Maps have been developed by the UWI, Water Resources Authority, Mines and Geology Department to name a few agencies. These maps must be compiled and continued efforts by the ODPEM and the other stakeholders doubled to ensure that they are used and used effectively.




  • Enlist private sector support banks and insurance industry in ensuring that Risk and Hazard Management principles are incorporated in projects to be funded and insured. 




  • Future development projects in hazard prone areas must include structural mitigation where cost effective. Build protective engineering works to protect existing developments




  • There needs to be further integration of Disaster Management, Environmental Management and Development Planning. The nation’s scientific community, engineering research community and the National Disaster Office must facilitate training and technology transfer horizontally as well as at a community level. The strengthening of Planning and Disaster Management Regulations and Enforcement.




  • These activities result in negative impacts such as erosion and conveyance of topsoil along with animal waste, faeces and sewage, garbage from gullies, pesticides and fertilizers to the sea. The potential environmental and health impacts include the spread of infection from stagnant water that remains after flooding, and contamination of groundwater and of near-shore marine areas. Outlets to watershed areas are also blocked during flooding associated with eroded debris and garbage dumped in waterways.


The success of our Natural Hazard Management program can only be accomplished through widespread participation of all stakeholders and not just the National Disaster Office.   Policy and legal foundations are critical but the success of such a programme can only be illustrated by the positive changes we have been able to effect on the ground through the reduction of economic losses as aresult of Natural Disasters. For this to occur we must ensure that our approach is coordinated and systematic and that the resources necessary are made available. It may be a stretch to expect Government assistance to achieve this, hence we must continue to collaborate with the regional and international communities to implement projects capable of realizing these goals.


After all a wise man once said, “Risk Management and Mitigation is not rocket science but pure common sense, we do it all the time”. We practice Preparedness Risk Management and Mitigation in our everyday life. One would think we could get it right in the context of managing our Natural Hazards.


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