In a typical year, deployment of Cayman’s National Emergency Operations Centre is uncommon. While its staff and services are tasked with responding to an array of public crises, these threats normally remain theoretical.
This year has been anything but typical, however, and many of those theoretical situations have already become reality.
The islands’ disaster-contingency arm has been partially activated since early March and its team has spent much of 2020 in action, responding to a 7.7 magnitude earthquake, a tsunami scare, two major landfill fires and an ongoing pandemic.
Now with the 1 June start of hurricane season just two weeks away, emergency planners must grapple with a potentially active storm season, combined with the complications of COVID-19.
For government, this prospect is a source of anxiety but also a call to action.
“All of these considerations are weighing heavily on us,” Premier Alden McLaughlin said during a recent press briefing on COVID-19.
“Can you imagine the challenges of trying to run shelters with physical-distancing requirements if you have the virus running rampant through this community? Those are the sort of things that give us nightmares.”
With early season forecasting predicting an above-average year for the Atlantic, a nightmare scenario is one that government must be prepared to address.
Listen to an extended interview about preparing for the dual challenges of hurricane season and COVID-19 with Danielle Coleman of Hazard Management and Matthew Forbes of the Governor’s Office in the Cayman Compass Podcast:
Hazard Management Cayman Islands Director Danielle Coleman is responsible for coordinating the various agencies that come together under NEOC to prepare Cayman for any variety of ‘worst case’ scenarios. While her team has been deployed in recent years to assist in many crises around the region, she recognises that this year is unlike any other.
“Having a National Emergency Operations Centre [that is] probably by the end of the year, activated for the majority of the year, it’s a lot of logistics. A lot of HR considerations have to be taken into account as well throughout the planning,” she said.
“There are a lot of considerations this year that are foreign to previous years.”
Shelter capacity, air lift and supply-chain continuity are just a few of the aspects of disaster response that have been complicated by the novel coronavirus.
Preparing for all possibilities has underlined the importance of inter-departmental planning and regional collaboration with entities like the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency.
A key partner for Hazard Management locally continues to be the Governor’s Office, which is tasked with much of the coordination between the UK and other Overseas Territories.
The office connects Cayman with the UK’s Security Assistance Team and the Ministry of Defence to pool resources, coordinate logistics and provide emergency backup when and where it is needed.
“This is a very novel situation,” said Matthew Forbes, head of the Governor’s Office.
“I don’t think there’s ever been planning done like this before when you’ve got a potentially active hurricane season about to come to the Caribbean and at the same time, you’re in the middle of a major, global pandemic.”
While the stakes may be high this year, Forbes is heartened by the expertise that Cayman brings to the table and the territory’s active role in regional response. In recent years, Cayman has deployed emergency teams to support the British Virgin Islands, the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Bahamas, among others, in response to major hurricanes.
The regional approach to disaster response has given Caribbean contingency teams plenty of opportunities to practise their skills and has elevated the level of local know-how, Forbes explained.
“It’s very much a collaborative effort,” he said. “The practical, frontline expertise that exists in the OTs in terms of dealing with hurricanes, this is some of the best understanding, I think, in the world that you’ll find because everybody’s been through hurricanes before.”
This year, of course, has required additional considerations and amplified efforts across many agencies, including the Public Works Department and the Health Services Authority.
There are the obvious considerations to keep in mind, like identifying additional shelter space, and the not-so-obvious, like ensuring COVID-19 testing laboratories are kept safe from flood waters. All of these details, ideally, must be sorted before another disaster strikes.
“One of the challenges here is to make sure that we carve out enough time to actually sit down and do some real ‘blue skies’ thinking on all of this. How does it work this year?” Forbes said.
With very little down time, emergency teams have been busy setting up field hospitals in Grand Cayman for potential COVID-19 overflow, identifying alternative supply-chain routes, and planning social-distancing protocols for shelters.
“I think one of our biggest concerns is … that people are so concerned to come to shelters because of COVID. Yet, they’re potentially risking their lives [by remaining] in the current accommodations that they’re in,” Coleman said.
“It could be a real problem. So, we’re going to make sure that we do have enough capacity and enough space. We also have PPE (personal protective equipment) … at all the shelters. So, anyone entering a shelter for a hurricane would be provided with PPE.”
Additionally, to accommodate air-lift needs during a time of restricted travel, Forbes said it is important to build as much regional resilience now as possible.
Deployment of the British Naval Service vessel RFA Argus from the UK, for example, provides the region with several additional helicopters and a critical care unit.
Territories have also been in discussions, Forbes said, about sharing police and prison resources, if needed.
Travel restrictions have emphasised the importance of organising repatriation flights now and evacuating as many people from Cayman as possible before the start of the season, he added.
“In normal years, we would have access to a whole raft of scheduled services coming in here on a daily basis so that we can evacuate a large number of people in advance of a hurricane strike,” Forbes said.
“Clearly, this year, that’s going to be a challenge because you can’t suddenly arrange a massive air lift within 48-hours’ notice when you know you’re going to get hit with a hurricane.”
While the range of possible scenarios can be alarming, considering and preparing for such situations is the reason the National Emergency Operations Centre was established. The challenges of this year have kept the team alert and pushed their creative thinking, Coleman said. She is confident in the division’s ability to step up to the task.
“Working together as a team, it’s been really interesting to see the different clusters take on their responsibilities. And it is a very-well-oiled machine now.”
For more information on hurricane season and how to make a storm plan, visit www.caymanprepared.gov.ky.