Call it the plan before the storm. Various agencies of the Cayman Islands government came together Wednesday to conduct the annual hurricane exercise, a drill to ensure that everybody is prepared for their role in confronting a major storm.
Hazard Management Cayman Islands led an all-day exercise in crisis assessment in the National Emergency Operations Centre, and repair crews from the Public Works Department and National Roads Authority raced around Grand Cayman to simulate preparing buildings for a potential storm.
The group in the National Emergency Operations Centre worked on 130 scenarios prepared by Kerry Powery, the chief meteorologist for the Cayman Islands National Weather Service. Mr. Powery said the goal was to examine the government’s preparation for each different type of storm.
“For us, it’s almost a constant thing. Practice is always good,” he said. “There’s always some wrinkle that might come up, some unexpected situation that makes you think outside the box. Our biggest problem might be perhaps that we’re understaffed. We could be a little short-handed, so we have to practice what we need to do to get the job done. The job is number one, so we make the sacrifices we need to make sure the rest of the islands have the information they need.”
The table-top conference brought various branches of government and attempted to coordinate their roles in the event of a storm. Four major groups – support services, emergency response, human concerns and infrastructure – broke apart to hammer out their individual responsibilities.
Danielle Coleman, deputy director of preparedness and planning for Hazard Management Cayman Islands, said a major focus is streamlining information and making sure everyone is on the same page. Thanks to technology, she said, it’s much easier to work out a reasonable plan of action.
“All these stakeholders would be part of the national response,” said Ms. Coleman. “It’s basically getting everyone to make sure we’re all speaking the same language and that we all understand what each other’s roles are in the event. We only do this once a year, so we need to make sure we’re up to date with modern technologies and we know what the plan is. We have to each know what our part of the puzzle is and what everybody else is doing so we can respond the way we need to.”
While that was going on, several groups of workers were spreading out all over the island to make sure they are able to shutter various buildings in the event of a storm. More than 150 workers were involved in assessing the various life-saving measures at over 100 buildings and 16 designated shelters.
Levi Allen, an inspector for the Public Works Department, said each building is examined to make sure that its electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems are in full working order.
“These are government buildings and government facilities,” said Mr. Allen of the inspection process. “Those that need to be shuttered are shuttered. Those that have hurricane rated windows are inspected. In addition to that, and most importantly, 16 shelters on Grand Cayman are shuttered and inspected annually to ensure that these buildings are able to protect citizens that require shelters.”
Mr. Allen said the national hurricane shelters can accommodate about 5,000 people – or 10 percent of the population of Grand Cayman – in the event of a major storm. He said the workers also drill on making their necessary repairs quickly so they can go home and get their own houses in order.
The Cayman Islands has been conducting these exercis
s for nearly 30 years, and the workers are getting better and more efficient each time they do it, he said.
“The first exercise was in 1988, and at that time it took three to four days to complete the entire island,” said Mr. Allen. “Right after, there was a hurricane, so it helped in the preparations. Now, in 2017, it takes us about six hours to do over 100 buildings and 16 shelters. Each year, we try to go quicker, but with safety in mind. We’ve never had any major incidents, knock on wood, and we never intend to.”
Arek Gardner, an assistant project manager with the Public Works Department who has been a building inspector for the last six years, said the process is getting better each time they do it.
“My job is to just tag along with the guys and make sure all the shutters are installed correctly, removed correctly and stored back correctly,” he said of the drill. “We’ve been doing it in record times. Year to year, we used to have a prize for the quickest time, but throughout the Caribbean, we’re one of the best when it comes to hurricane preparedness in terms of getting the buildings secured.”
The crews on the ground and the groups in the conference room are working to ensure the same thing: That Cayman is fortified to deal with any contingency from a storm. Communication is key, so the people seeing the conditions on the ground can relay that information back to the planning center.
Mr. Powery said the National Weather Service coordinates with the hurricane center in Miami to get the best projection information and to prepare for each scenario. And after each annual test of the system, the groups know better how to confront each of their respective tasks.
“Because the island is small, the consideration for evacuation is problematic,” he said. “We’re a tourist base, so we try to get the word out to the tourists. If they want to leave, they make accommodations for that. For the locals, just ride it out, and we try to give them the best information we can.