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.

However, 2020 has been anything but typical, 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 hurricane season under way, 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 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.”

Above-average forecast

With early season forecasts predicting an above-average year for the Atlantic, a nightmare scenario is one that government must be prepared to address.

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.

“By the end of 2020, the National Emergency Operations Centre will have been activated for a substantial period.” she said. “There are a number of considerations with such a long-term activation. We need to make sure that it can be sustained from a personnel perspective as well as logistics.

“Planning and responding to two emergencies occuring at the same time (dump fire as well as COVID, whilst also being ready for the hurricane season) means that we have to be flexible and able to adapt to an ever-changing landscape.”

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 (new) 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 British 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.

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.

COVID complications

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,” Coleman said. “Yet, they’re potentially risking their lives (by remaining) in the current accommodations that they’re in.

“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 about sharing police and prison resources, if needed. Travel restrictions have emphasised the importance of organising repatriation flights and evacuating as many people from Cayman as possible, Forbes 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,” he said.

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 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,” she said.

This article is an updated version of a report by Kayla Young, originally published in the Cayman Compass.

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