Empowering communities to take charge of their own recovery is vital to any disaster management plan, said visiting disaster mitigation and resilience expert Professor Ian Davis.
‘Disasters tend to leave people with a feeling of helplessness, thinking either, ‘This is too big for me’ or ‘I can’t do much’. Countering this is important, because people should be an integral part of their own recovery for it to be meaningful and long term,’ Professor Davis said in an interview with Government Information Services.
‘Past disasters have also taught us that communities are extremely resourceful and creative in their problem solving in the aftermath of a catastrophe.’
He cited Cayman residents as an example of how a strong sense of community aided a speedy recovery. ‘You can pat yourselves on the back for the remarkable recovery you have made after Hurricane Ivan.’
Professor Davis added that strong leadership from business owners, church leaders and other community leaders also played a part in Cayman’s revival.
‘Successful recovery is a triangular process that takes into account the economy, the physical environment and psycho-socio factors, and getting everyone involved, as was the case here in Cayman, is the best way to merge these three areas,’ he explained.
Visiting Cayman for the first time, Professor Davis shared with the private sector, civil society and Cayman Government, lessons learned from the many disasters on which he has worked worldwide. Accompanying him was Mr. Franklin McDonald, senior technical advisor on the joint Cayman Islands Government and UNDP project to develop a risk management strategy for the Cayman Islands.
The two-day visit was facilitated by the National Hurricane Committee and the Cabinet Office and included focus group meetings with National Hurricane Committee members and government agencies tasked with reconstruction, planning, resilience building and environmental disaster preparedness. They also facilitated several focus group meetings with key members of the private sector, financial firms and civil society.
Residents had the opportunity to exchange ideas with Professor Davis and Mr. McDonald at a public lecture on resilience sponsored by the National Trust for the Cayman Islands. (For a copy of Professor Davis’ presentation enquire at the Cabinet Office).
Issues raised at the talk mostly dealt with proper planning in regards to land use, zoning and enforcement.
Professor Davis cautioned residents against slapdash recovery, emphasizing the importance of building better and stronger when repairing.
Mr. McDonald added to this point by saying that the emphasis on getting out before the storm should be replaced by a focus on strengthening the existing structures on island. ‘History doesn’t support the notion that we will always get enough notice to evacuate; residents should rather work on creating safe places to ride out the storm.’
He urged government and the private sector to assess their facilities, deciding which are critical to disaster preparedness, such as schools that can be used as shelters. Officials should ensure that these facilities are prioritized and built and maintained with optimum resilience in mind.
Helping the hardest hit
Professor Davis further touched on the subject of helping those devastated by Ivan to pick up the pieces. ‘There should be an assessment of those residents that are still homeless and destitute. Local leaders should find ways to address their needs and revitalize these marginalized societies for the good of the whole society,’ he said, adding the warning: ‘Failing to do so will result in an ever widening socio-economic gap while these people will continue to be a drain on social services.’
Professor Davis’ overall message to residents was that they should take responsibility for themselves and their families and recognise that they have a vital role to play in disaster management.
‘Self-help is the key – strengthen your own house, help your neighbour do the same, and support government programmes and local initiatives by applying what skills you have.’
Professor Davis and Mr. McDonald visited Grand Cayman on their way to Jamaica to participate in an international meeting on the topic, Built Environment Issues in Small Island States and Territories.