One of the struggles following Hurricane Ivan in September 2004 was communication.
Residents experienced difficulty in contacting others both on and off Grand Cayman.
But well placed officials out of the country willing to help had their efforts stymied because they could not adequately communicate with anyone here.
Improvements the Cayman Islands has made to its communications in the wake of hurricanes was one of the topics discussed at the special panellist discussion last week at the Florida Caribbean Cruise Conference.
Among the panellists at the session, which took place at the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman on Thursday, Angela Martins, Deputy Chair of the National Hurricane Committee and Chair of the sub committee for Joint Communications Services briefly outlined how the Cayman Islands has improved its communications strategy since Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
Director of Communications with the Caribbean Tourism Organisation Johnson Johnrose noted from his personal experience that getting information from Cayman had been difficult following Ivan.
‘No one knew what to tell me in the earlier stages, or what the chain of command was,’ he said. But he added that eventually a fantastic job was done of getting the message out to him.
Princess Cruises and Cunard Line’s VP of Caribbean and Atlantic Shore Operations Stephen Nielson said there had been a lack of a point of contact in Cayman that they could deal with to find out what supplies were needed.
Speaking specifically about communications, Mrs. Martins said that following Hurricane Ivan the Cayman Islands’ voice was inconsistent outside of the country because there had been no predetermined process for communication to the outside world in giving out a single voice for the destination.
She made the point that the generation running the country had no first-hand experience themselves of hurricanes, but had only heard stories of the 1932 storm.
However, many lessons have been learned, which have been incorporated as improvements in communications strategy in the revised National Hurricane plans.
The revised plan has a Joint Communications Services team made up of representatives from Government Information Services, Ministry of Finance and Department of Tourism. From now on this team collectively will agree on the message points to be given out to international partners, and this will be factual information regarding the state of the jurisdiction.
‘Where we were not on target was managing the voice of the destination,’ she said. ‘We have come out of it with a very aggressive approach so that the international message we send out to all different sectors will be the same,’ she said.
Speaking afterwards to the Caymanian Compass Mrs. Martins said she believes the Cayman Islands is much stronger now, in general, in its preparation for any storm.
Ivan has caused much strengthening of domestic homes against storms, such as new and improved roofs, and back up generators.
All new Government buildings, including schools, will be built as multi purpose hurricane standard buildings that can double as shelters.
Businesses now have hurricane plans in place, when they may not have before, and the DoT offers hurricane guidelines to tourists through brochures placed at the various properties.
She also confirmed that the Cayman Islands government has invested in several satellite phones for key departments. The necessity of satellite phones as a back up for when land and mobile services go down was also mentioned by other panellists.
Mayor of Cozumel Gustavo Ortega Joaquin showed a video presentation on Cozumel’s hit by Hurricane Wilma last year and its subsequent recovery.
He noted that preparation and communication were the keys to success in getting cruise ships back to the island three weeks after the storm.
Following the hurricane this date was agreed with the cruise lines in order to set a deadline and make people work hard to achieve their goals. All efforts were focused on cleaning up the tourists areas such as the waterfront.
‘We stopped selling alcohol and adopted strict measures, but they worked very well and at the end of it we accomplished our goals,’ he said.
Mr. Johnrose said that in the immediate aftermath of a hurricane there is a huge demand for information. Have it ready, he said. Do a first media briefing as early as possible, he advised.
The message that should be given out is a factual one as to what the situation is, but pointing out also that the situation is not hopeless and that tourists can come back soon.
‘As a general rule tourism recovers fairly quickly, but it’s how you deal with it afterwards that gives the perception of a destination,’ he said.
CEO of Tropical Shipping Rick Murrell emphasised trust between company and employees as important in such instances of disaster, noting that 400 police left the New Orleans police force following Hurricane Katrina.
‘You’re not going to get people to come to work if they’re worried about the welfare of their families.’
His company, he said, tells employees that after a storm they will come and find them, and if their house has blown away they will take them and their families to work and feed them.
‘People are the priority and they need to know that before any disaster,’ he said.
Mr. Nielson said cruise ships can be valuable tools for countries that have gone through a disaster, in getting supplies and help to them.
He noted that following its disaster, Cozumel had a single point of contact they could deal with – The Mayor – and the cruise lines had immediately responded to Cozumel’s needs because of this.
‘We can get supplies in, but we need to know what’s needed and where to bring it so it can be received officially and cleared officially, responsibly and accountably,’ he said.