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Friday 17 August 2018
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Next steps for the ODPM

No more time can be wasted. The Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) must now, under new management, move swiftly to implement reforms to prevent a recurrence of this month’s debacle. If, after deputy CEO Dave Williams’ resignation, the ODPM fails to respond appropriately to any future natural inclemency, the very existence of the organisation will be at stake.

Williams should be thanked for his service, but it is clear his position was, by last Friday, untenable. His remarks about last week’s circumstances being “a small thing” was a misstep which simply could not be reckoned with.

The deputy CEO’s departure is a welcome sign of accountability by public officials, at all levels, to the public. Too often such officials have ignored public outcry over failings and have doggedly clung to power. Not so in this instance.

But it cannot be business as usual now for the ODPM.

The Ministry of National Security must move swiftly to make a fresh appointment to the important post. And the organisation itself must rapidly implement reforms to prevent a recurrence of last week’s failings. This will require cooperation from public servants and, ideally, oversight from the Cabinet. The ODPM is too important a State agency to be left without the most rigorous forms of quality control.

It also remains the case that as a nation we must now come to terms with the fact that weather patterns appear to have become erratic. Already, meteorologists have reported that the month of October has been wetter than normal, by about 20 per cent. At this rate we may be on par for one of the wettest Octobers since 1988.

We must ensure that our State agencies are at the very cutting edge of weather forecasting technology. Just as the response of agencies like the ODPM is important, so too is our ability to assess risk.

Meanwhile, the State should move swiftly to settle the matter of compensation for people who suffered losses due to last week’s flooding. This, too, is an area where improvements can be made to ensure that verification of claims becomes more efficient. It is not ideal that the State is only now poised to pay out $12 million in damages for Tropical Storm Bret, which affected us since June. But it is also not ideal that the State should be paying these damages in the first place.

The longer-term issue remains the fact that we are yet to devise methods to handle the problem of flooding, despite centuries of experience in the matter.

True, it is the case that weather patterns have been unusual. Yet, we as a people deserve infrastructure that is capable of withstanding wide variations in our rainfall conditions. It is no longer good enough that we have been content with having drains and culverts that are adequate. It is time for the deployment of far more sophisticated infrastructure.

Perhaps this is wishful thinking in a country where sometimes even the most basic drainage system is rendered useless by defects or other factors such as high levels of pollution. If people continue to dump rubbish in our waterways, as long as high levels of non-biodegradable plastics continue to clog our drainage systems, as long as there continues to be deforestation and improperly regulated construction on hillsides, then even the fanciest drainage system will not be enough to save us from disaster. And it will be the people left paying the price yet again.

The ODPM has witnessed a changing of the guard. But now what? We need to reform that agency, yes, but we also need to address the other problems that continue to plague us every rainy season.


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