Few could forget the images that came out of New Orleans straight after Hurricane Katrina hit, with Americans desperate for help that took forever to come, a devastating example of a city ill-prepared for a disaster in the proportion of a Category 5 hurricane. General Russel Honoré was the military chief tasked with the eventual clean up and rescue of that ravaged city. As a committed Rotarian, he spoke recently to Cayman’s Rotary Sunrise about the importance of preparedness.
According to General Honoré, creating a culture of preparedness among a community at risk for disasters (such as the Cayman Islands) means integrating being prepared into all facets of life.
“You’ve got to take stock of your life and assess what events are likely to happen, whether they could be devastation caused from wind, rain, flood, terrorist attacks or accidents. You need to decide upon the most probable disasters that could occur and plan accordingly,” he says.
General Honoré said creating a disaster plan from the ground up was essential.
“Governments may be prepared with disaster plans in place, but ensuring that families are properly geared up if a disaster strikes is a different challenge,” he confirms.
Families need to know what “being prepared” actually entails, including access to generators should the power fail, access to sufficient food and water, access to elevated shelter in times of flooding and so on, he explains.
Helping those at risk
“The real challenge comes with the most vulnerable in society – the elderly, the disabled and the poor,” he says. “This was brought into sharp focus after Hurricane Katrina. The onus now has been on the US government to spend more resources on the most vulnerable, post-Katrina.”
General Honoré says the US government has had to build up a level of trust among these sectors in society, in particular, so they would feel safe in the event of a similar disaster.
“All aspects of society need to be on board to educate and inform the public on disaster preparedness, including social, educational and religious sectors,” he says. “And in particular, businesses.”
Immediately after a disaster, businesses need to be their own first responder, according to the General, so they need buy-in by all members of staff from the top down. They should also understand that with disaster comes opportunity.
“If you live in any area under probable threat of disaster such as a hurricane and the corresponding tidal surge that often causes devastation for weeks after the event, as a business you should be aware of the basic requirements of people in need – food, water, shelter and medication. These are the opportunities for businesses which are ready,” he comments. “Those businesses that are prepared can be up and running the next day.”
General Honoré goes on to say that the construction of buildings, in particular businesses, needs to be closely looked at in terms of disaster preparedness.
He used an example from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina whereby a pharmacy had been located on the ground floor of a building and its parking lot on the second floor, which, he says, did not make a lot of sense in a flood prone zone. Nor did locating generators for a hospital in the area in the basement.
“Businesses need to adapt their infrastructure to the environment; they need to plan to become resilient,” he says.
Katrina highlighted vulnerabilities
Lessons learned post-Katrina in particular included an appreciation of the importance of evacuation and the need for suitable shelter for those unable to evacuate, especially the old and the disabled.
“After Katrina we had a problem with the locations that were designated shelters, such as gyms and arenas, which could not accommodate the disabled,” he confirms. “We realised the necessity of caring for all aspects of society.”
In the same vein, the General says that where homes for the elderly are located need to be carefully assessed for their vulnerability to disaster.
“They shouldn’t be built in flood prone zones, for example,” he says.
Katrina destroyed vast amounts of housing in New Orleans and as such there is now a lack of affordable housing for returning residents.
“With so many affordable houses destroyed we are still missing around half the original population, and those who have come back are still living in rented accommodation,” he confirms.
Basic moves a family can make to become prepared in a disaster are to ensure there is a first aid kit at home and ensure that all members of the family can swim, especially in flood-prone zones.
He recounted two stories from Katrina – one whereby an entire family of five sadly drowned because they could not swim; the other where a young boy had undertaken a life-saving swimming course just a couple of weeks before and who managed to save his entire family.
“We need philanthropic entities and volunteers such as Rotary to ensure that everyone learns to swim.
“Empowering people with such life skills gives them confidence to take charge of their lives, should a disaster strike,” he says.