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Returning from his recent business trip to the Caribbean, Charlie reflects on the lessons he learned in relation to natural disasters.

For the past week, I have been in the Caribbean delivering a series of business continuity workshops and I thought I would share some of the lessons I learned from my two trips to the area.

My first lesson is about the number of natural hazards in the area. We usually hear about hurricanes, but there are many others as well, including:

Volcanoes – On 18th July 1995 in Montserrat, the previously dormant Soufrière Hills volcano erupted. Eruptions destroyed Montserrat’s capital city of Plymouth and the W. H. Bramble Airport was buried by lava flows. Between 1995 and 2000, two-thirds of the island’s population was forced to flee to the UK, leaving fewer than 1,200 people on the island, as of 1997.
Floods – I experienced some of the tropical rain showers, which dump massive amounts of water on the area. The water tends to drain away quickly, as many of the islands are quite hilly, but every year there are floods and landslides. I noted a report from Dominica about a Tropical Storm, which hit the island on 27th August 2015. ‘It resulted in 13 deaths and directly affected about 15,900 people (about 23% of the national population). Torrential rain triggered massive landslides and flooding. Rivers and streams surged, carrying boulders and debris, destroying villages, homes, roads, bridges and land. Over 800 households were left homeless. TS Erika caused damages and losses of about USD 483 million, approximately 90% of the country’s GDP’.
Earthquakes – Probably the most well-known is the earthquake which hit Haiti on 12th January 2010, affecting 3 million people and killing an estimated 100,000 to 160,000. It also caused damage to 250,000 houses and 300,000 commercial premises. Since the earthquake, there have been a number of hurricanes which have hampered the recovery effort and destroyed recently rebuilt homes.
Tsunami’s – Often with earthquakes, you get a tsunami. In the Jamaican earthquake of 1907, the sea withdrew 3 metres below the low tide mark and then surged to 2 metres above the normal high tide mark. This compounded the devastation caused by the earthquake.

When I conducted the threat assessment in Trinidad in September, I was told quite firmly the Island was outside the hurricane zone and therefore hurricanes were not one of the threats I should consider. In preparation for the current workshops, I discovered a devastating hurricane happened in 1933. The hurricane killed 35 people throughout the Southern Caribbean and caused £3m worth of damage and made approximately 1000 people homeless in Trinidad. Whilst looking at incidents in Jamaica, I saw that they had not had a serious earthquake since 1907, but that does not mean it won’t happen again. In business continuity, we talk about black swans; incidents which have happened elsewhere, but we don’t see as threats to ourselves. Looking back at an area’s history, especially beyond a present person’s knowledge, is a good way of identifying risks and events in the past, which could be indications of possible future events. With climate change and a warming of the oceans, it might be more likely that Trinidad could have another major hurricane again and so hurricanes should be considered as a threat.

The news of the islands devastated by Hurricanes Maria and Irma has quickly left the media. Puerto Rico, which was very badly hit by Hurricane Maria, will not have electricity fully restored until Christmas. The island only seems to be in the news because of the spat between Carmen Yulín Cruz, Mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan and President Trump, over what Cruz sees as lack of hurricane relief by the USA. The Dutch, French and UK’s troop deployment to their overseas territories are being, at least from a British point of view, reduced and troops are being sent back home. Unfortunately for the Caribbean, they are seen as nice holiday destination, rather than strategic assets and partners. As a result of this, they don’t get the same lasting attention after a disaster by the ‘great powers’, especially by the USA, and are left to recover on their own.

It is lucky that the people are resilient and ‘just get on with it’ after a disaster. The lady who drove me from the airport to the hotel in Jamaica was very matter-of-fact about having her home destroyed after Hurricane Wilma in 2015. She said she just got on with it and rebuilt her house on the same site. Having resilient people and a ‘can do’ attitude is very much needed in an area very susceptible to natural disasters.

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