A state agency like the Office for Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) may well complain that it regularly gets the job done and that job goes unnoticed and under-appreciated. But unfortunately, all it takes is one lapse for public confidence in this vital institution to be thrown out of the window. That lapse happened with the devastating flooding which submerged vast areas of the country starting on the Divali holiday. We can quibble over the timeline of who knew what and when, but the fact of the matter is this: when it comes to our response to natural disasters, there is no room for error.
What happened to the ODPM? That is the question that must be properly answered. Surely it cannot be the case that in a modern age such as this, with modern telecommunications devices and a plethora of social media – on which the ODPM itself is present – that ODPM officials were unaware of the weather conditions, the forecast probability of flooding and, when the flooding did occur, the fact that the waters had risen.
The explanation offered by ODPM deputy CEO Dave Williams is really no explanation at all.
“The communication did not happen the way we would have liked, and we realised what had happened after waters rose,” he reportedly said at a press conference which the ODPM called yesterday as it should have been focusing on cleaning up the mess. But in any natural disaster, the first thing you expect to happen is for there to be a breakdown of communication: telephone lines get cut, power outages occur, entire areas are often marooned by collapsed bridges or flooded waterways.
Saying that the ODPM did not get word of what was happening until it was well underway comes perilously close to blaming the victims of this disaster for not reporting it. The ODPM should be able to use the State resources at its disposal – including its links with the meteorological and other agencies – to be extra vigilant. There is a reason “preparedness” is a part of its mandate.
Could the Divali holiday have played a role in this shameful affair? Even if it did, that too is simply not good enough. The ODPM should already have plans in place to treat with a situation at any point in time: day, night, holiday or workday.
The failure of the ODPM demands a total review of its procedures and emergency plans to assess weaknesses and identify ways in which those weaknesses can be overcome moving forward.
The appalling flooding which has affected thousands of homes in all of the regional corporations once again demonstrates the fragility of our infrastructure. This was a case of extreme seasonal weather associated with the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone. What are we to expect if this country ever experiences a storm of the calibre of Hurricane Irma or Maria?
We hail those instances in which private citizens have been resourceful, rescuing families and also providing warm meals and temporary shelters. While citizens should not have to endanger themselves to perform the functions of State agencies that are specialised in disaster-preparedness, there is something to be said for unity in the face of the storm. Literally.
With the budget process ongoing, much attention remains diverted on the passage of the annual fiscal package. But we hope all of these matters have not escaped the attention of State officials at the highest level. If the ODPM is not able to demonstrate to MPs its ability to draw up a better national plan of action, it will have to account for this awful lapse.