St. VINCENT:- Minister of Disaster Management Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves has defended the National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO) amidst criticism that it did not sufficiently warn Vincentians ahead of Hurricane Tomas last weekend.
The government has declared “disaster areas” the northern sections of the island, which suffered the brunt of the storm’s effect, which included damage to 1,200 houses.
Gonsalves told reporters on Monday, Nov. 1, that while he was in Barbados on Friday, Oct. 29, he was advised that the NEMO informed the public that the storm was approaching St. Vincent.
“There is a checklist which we have and they have been following it. Seventy-two hours before a storm comes, certain things are done, including informing the public,” Gonsalves said.
He said there were also other protocols to be observed 48 and 24 hours before the storm arrives respectively and “at … 12 hours [ahead of the arrival of the storm] … as prime minister, I have to take complete charge”.
Gonsalves said that when he returned to St. Vincent after 10 p.m. on Friday, he went directly to NEMO’s headquarters, where Minister of Health Dr. Douglas Slater was deputizing and chairing the meeting of disaster managers and responders.
“I know bulletins had been going out. Now it may well be the form in which bulletin go out, maybe the information was not being taken in by the public,” Gonsalves said.
Gonsalves had addressed the nation by radio at 6:45 Saturday morning, Oct. 30.
“In fact, ‘I said we are within the 12-hour countdown’. I said ‘we anticipate that it will hit us after lunch, maybe one o’clock, two o’clock or thereabout’. A number of persons heard the message, a number of persons heeded the message, but some did not,” Gonsalves said.
He said that Minister Slater met person at the market in Kingstown and advised them to return home.
These persons, however, told Slater that the Prime Minister “was making more of the storm than it was”, according to Gonsalves.
“That time, it didn’t appear to anybody [that the storm was coming],” Gonsalves said.
“The place was calm but we have to act in accordance with the science of meteorology and we had the satellite tracking. The radio stations were talking about it until they went off [air] when the actual blast came, so to speak. I know most of the shelters, by far, were opened but people were not going into them…” he further said.
Gonsalves further said that his government has invested effort and resources in disaster preparedness and management, and has over the years supplied every home with a family disaster plan.
He said the NEMO and the community has been doing work in collaboration with radio stations.
“But, some people just didn’t listen so that …. In mitigation to those people who comment like that, maybe NEMO has not presented the data — the information — in as attractive packages but people have to pay attention to these serious things and some do not,” Gonsalves said.
He said the NEMO worked around the clock and did a “fair” job.
He said that from 12:30 Friday afternoon, information from the NEMO was sent to and relayed by the media.
“This is not to say that some people didn’t hear. I don’t know how many persons heard my address at quarter to seven on Saturday morning,” he said.
Gonsalves had advised residents of low-lying areas and whose homes were “not very secure” to go to go to shelters.
The address was repeated several times that morning.
“Maybe again, none of those things persons heard. So I am not blanking the criticism. I am only putting the other side of the story so that persons can assess the reasonableness or otherwise of the criticism …”
Gonsalves said that some time ago he was criticized when, based on storm predictions, he had advised the nation to remain indoors.
“Now, the storm didn’t come as the science had indicated — the meteorology had indicated. [It] veered away from us. And you would remember criticism of me by some people that I frightened people, I scared them for no reason…” Gonsalves said.
He said that slow-moving storms like Tomas may take a while to make landfall.
“… [I]it can be out there hanging around; especially this one was a peculiar one. It was moving so slowly. Though the winds were storm forced winds of 60 miles-65 miles per hour, it was moving at eight to ten miles an hour… It took a long time in moving across. It moved slowly but with an intense speed of 75 miles per hour by the time it reached us – hurricane force winds…” Gonsalves said.
“In this business, you do, you are damned; you don’t do, you are also damned. But you try to do; you do your best in the circumstances,” he said.