“Jamaica has a well-developed disaster-response mechanism.”
This statement was attributed to Prime Minister Andrew Holness in the aftermath of last Monday’s 5.6 magnitude earthquake, according to this newspaper.
Disaster-response mechanism, presumably, was the term he used to refer to government entities he named that were involved in the response to the event. Agencies like the Jamaica Fire Brigade, the Jamaica Defence Force, the Jamaica Constabulary Force, the Office of Disaster Preparedness & Emergency Management (ODPEM), the National Works Agency, and the National Water Commission were mentioned. Why was the Ministry of Finance & the Public Service not named?
The report did not cite any facts the PM used to inform his opinion. Some readers may recall that I have been very critical of two agencies Mr Holness listed: the ODPEM – see Gleaner, May 16, 2021, ‘The Mishandling of ODPEM’; ‘Protecting Jamrock from Death and Destruction’, October 2, 2022; and ‘Compounding Disasters’, August 27, 2023; my opinion on the fire brigade was based on performance reviews conducted by the auditor general – see ‘Synchronising Fire Service with High-Rise Trend’, April 2, 2023.
That said, the PM’s speech writer referred to important lessons the Government learned from managing COVID-19. However, there was no reference in the statement to its natural disaster risk financing policy and the financial framework erected to protect the economy from the adverse effects of natural disasters.
Four years ago, this newspaper cited a report, ‘Neotectonics of Southeast Jamaica, Derived from Marine Seismic Surveys and Gravity Cores’, about the discovery of a fault line in the Kingston Harbour that could generate a 5.8 to 6.9 magnitude earthquake. Monday’s event was below the low-end of the range.
In my October 2021 article, ‘Policing Fiscal Risks from Natural Disasters’, I gave a big shout-out to Minister of Finance Dr Nigel Clarke. It should be repeated in the context of the recent quake. I wrote: “Successive predecessors of the present finance minister failed for over 30 years to tackle the fiscal risks of natural disasters to the local economy”. This statement followed the ministry’s successful placement of a US$185 million catastrophe bond.
Local observers invariably overlook the compounding effect of two natural disasters – a hurricane followed by an earthquake, or vice versa. Minister Clarke recognises the threats. My previously cited article says that “he took to the pages of this newspaper after Haiti’s 7.2 Magnitude earthquake and brush with Tropical Storm Grace to share details about Jamaica’s disaster risk financing strategy”.
In 2023, the Mexican state of Guerrero, where the famous tourist destination Acapulco is located, was struck by Category 5 hurricane, Otis, on October 25. Tropical Storm Tammy hit Barbuda four days earlier. At least 39 persons were reported to have died because of Otis, the first Category 5 hurricane that occurred along Mexico’s Pacific Coast since official records were kept. Experts estimate that its losses will be in the range of US$10 billion to US$15 billion, “one of the most expensive events (if not highest) on record for the Mexican insurance market”.
The American equivalent of the ODPEM is FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The agency says its mission is:
To support the citizens and first responders to promote that as a nation, we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards. A large part of FEMA’s job is helping people recover after a disaster. FEMA offers federal grants to victims to help them with temporary housing, emergency home repairs, loss of personal property, and funeral and medical expenses, among other things. FEMA will not pay to restore the home to its original condition or to rebuild—however, FEMA partners with the Small Business Administration to offer low-interest loans to victims. Grants for emergency housing are available to disaster victims regardless of income. Still, FEMA grants for personal property replacement, property storage, and vehicle repair and replacement are based on financial need. Victims do not have to repay FEMA grants.
A report in The New York Times a few weeks ago by Dr Samantha Montano levelled criticism against FEMA. Its headline, ‘America’s Disaster Recovery System is a Disaster’, summarises the article’s main point. Dr Montano is an assistant professor of emergency management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and the author of Disasterology: Dispatches From the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis.
The article discusses the experiences of 12 persons in the aftermath of various disasters, including hurricanes, floods, freezes, and wildfires. FEMA’s budget for the 2023 fiscal year was US$25.89 billion.
Jamaica’s Ministry of Local Government & Rural Development is the parent ministry for the ODPEM. The ministry’s budget for 2023-24 is $20.56 billion.
Frankly, the PM’s anodyne comments about what he calls the country’s disaster response mechanism do not reassure me. Acting ODPEM Director-General Richard Thompson’s statement about adherence to protocols does not inspire confidence or provide evidence of independent thinking. The PM tried to play the ‘acting chief justice’ card with Chief Justice Bryan Sykes but was forced to back down. Just look at Mr Sykes’ accomplishments in the judicial system since he assumed office. However, Mr Thompson has decided not to follow the CJ’s example of setting world-class standards for the agency he purportedly leads.
Finally, I suspect that the PM’s confidence in the efficacy of the disaster-response mechanism was based more on the Government’s experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic and less on the relatively short-duration earth tremor last Monday.