Mark Merritt speaks with respect about the people he has met through the Cayman Islands Recovery Operation.
Mr. Merritt is senior vice-president and partner of James Lee Witt Associates, a company that specialises in disaster management. He has been in Cayman since shortly after Hurricane Ivan with just three or four brief trips off-island for meetings.
Before joining the company, he served in increasingly responsible posts with FEMA, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency.
When he is asked how Cayman’s CIRO compares with the American FEMA, Mr. Merritt now has a standard answer: ‘With FEMA, you have emergency managers from other states coming in to help disaster victims. With CIRO, you have disaster victims coming together to help other disaster victims.’
Hurricane Ivan was certainly a disaster for Grand Cayman.
‘The National Hurricane Committee did an absolutely excellent job in their response and they didn’t get enough credit for it,’ Mr. Merritt. ‘But after the initial response comes the long haul.’
The NHC was responsible for crisis management. Now CIRO is responsible for consequences management. The mission has changed from response to recovery.
In order for there to be a smooth transition between the two phases, the two committees will be combined, Mr. Merritt explained. Government has already been looking at one organisation to do both.
‘It’s rewarding for us to come in and help design something almost from scratch,’ he commented.
James Lee Witt Associates signed an agreement with Government in October. According to a Government Information Services release at the time, the agreement was ‘aimed at accelerating local recovery efforts.’
As overseers, JLWA team members have supported the CIRO approach of bringing together people who may not have had close working relationships before. As experienced disaster managers, they have been able to share what worked and what didn’t work in other places. They have facilitated discussions that led to clear decisions on what actions CIRO should take.
At a recent press conference, Mr. Merritt pointed out that ‘Our goal here is to never have to come back.’
As an example, he referred to the importation of trailers for living quarters. He said it was ‘amazing’ to him how the issue had been dealt with. Trailers weren’t even allowed before Ivan. Then they were discussed as a post-Ivan option. Then people were sent up to the US to look at various types. Others were sent to be trained in their installation.
Within five months after Ivan, people were living in trailers, with more units coming. If Cayman ever suffers another disaster, all that experience will be available, Mr. Merrett pointed out.
Although JLWA’s goal is to not return as recovery overseers, team members do plan to revisit Cayman. ‘We will come back and see how you do,’ Mr. Merrett said. ‘We like to pass on what we’ve learned.’
Asked if Cayman differed from other areas in which he has worked, Mr. Merrett said the biggest initial difference was the ministerial system of government. But once the JLWA team got into its work, the government structure was easy to understand. Every government has a public works section, he noted, as well as someone responsible for housing, as an example, or social services.
The JLWA team might have done one thing differently, Mr., Merrett confessed. ‘We didn’t engage the MLAs the way we should have. We learned that along the way.’
The reason for that lapse was Cayman’s relative absence of local government – no city mayors or county officers, for instance.
Discussion of the situation resulted in district committees being formed, Mr. Merrett explained.
Asked how long it takes to recover from a disaster the magnitude of Ivan, he said that some areas of the United States may take five to seven years to get back to normal, largely because of major construction projects. Otherwise, the time frame for recovery is usually two years.
For Cayman, the JLWA goal is for Cayman to be ‘back on your feet, as good or better, within two years.’
Perhaps Mr. Merrett will be able to come back in 2007 and see for himself. Meanwhile, he is leaving Cayman for Asia. James Lee Witt Associates has been asked to go to Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia to assist with tsunami recovery.