It is inevitable that a disaster of some sort will strike Cayman, whether on a national level in the form of a hurricane or through more localised incidents such as fires and community flooding.

However, when disasters do strike, Hazard Management Cayman Islands is counting on its Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) to help mitigate the threat while boosting recovery efforts.

Ordinary people

The CERT programme is designed to empower ordinary people with the skills needed to quickly evaluate a potentially hazardous situation. Where possible, they also provide immediate assistance until first responders are able to attend the scene.

“It was applied to Cayman because after (Hurricane Ivan) there was a notable need for it,” said HMCI Acting Deputy Director Teresita DaSilva who heads up the programme. “A lot of communities were cut off from each other and there was no ability for emergency responders to get out to them within a day or two.”

DaSilva said Cayman’s CERT members undergo an eight-week training course that teaches them light search and rescue, first aid, damage assessment and fire suppressant techniques, among other things.

In many instances, CERT volunteers provide firsthand, in-depth insight specific to a community that is then fed back to the HMCI’s National Emergency Operations Centre. The information is used to help advise the development of an emergency plan.

“They will be the persons that are on the ground and would know the persons in need, or if there are any fatalities, they would know how to communicate that back to the NEOC so we can know how to deploy our emergency response teams,” DaSilva said.

All emergencies

Although the CERT programme was originally designed to help strengthen the country’s response and preparedness levels during hurricane season, which runs from 1 June to 30 November, its usefulness has grown, so CERT members have been deployed several times outside of hurricane season.

“It’s not just hurricane season, we are active all year round,” said Eziethamae “Zeta” Bodden, head of the West Bay CERT group.

Since the start of 2020, CERT groups have been deployed several times.

Bodden said her team was activated after a 7.7 magnitude earthquake rocked the Cayman Islands in January.

“HMCI wanted to know whether the tides had risen or dropped, so I went and I videotaped by Morgan’s Harbour, down by the (Cayman) Turtle Centre, up by the Governor’s (beach) and sent them into HMCI,” said Bodden.

Another CERT group is believed to have been partially activated to help man Red Cross shelters, after several George Town residents were evacuated from their homes during a landfill fire that raged for four consecutive days in March.

Most recently, the CERT groups were deployed to help national COVID-19 suppression efforts, albeit in a minor role.

“Although they we didn’t have them on the forefront, they were handing out masks and leaflets,” said DaSilva. “We didn’t want to put them in harm’s way that they would now contract COVID.”

With the 2020 Atlantic hurricanes season now in full swing alongside the global COVID-19 pandemic, HMCI has had to rethink how and when CERT groups are deployed.

In total, six CERT teams are scattered across communities in each district on Grand Cayman as well as on Cayman Brac.

Local knowledge

By relying on community members to help each other, the CERT programme is able to capitalise on the expert local knowledge of residents in each community and quickly identify valuable resources needed should a disaster strike.

“Some people just want to say I am available, and I am willing to help, and they come out whenever we call them,” said Bodden. “If there is a hurricane coming and people need to put up plywood on their things, you have some construction people that say, yes, I’m willing to help let me know.”

Although the CERT groups are located in different districts, DaSilva said team leaders maintain contact with each other and HMCI, which allows them to request additional support should the need arise.

Brother’s keeper

For Bodden the CERT programme is a way to reinvigorate the idea of being her ‘brother’s keeper’.

“You have to be your brother’s keeper and help out in any way you can,” she said. “We are the CERT team and that would be expected, but even if you are not a member of the CERT team, every human being needs to take care of each other.”

DaSilva said while CERT team groups play an important role in helping to keep the community prepared throughout the year, it is a small part of a larger community focus to have all residents prepared for not just hurricane season, but any eventually.

“We are trying to educate on earthquakes, tsunamis, flooding, fire (and) hazardous materials,” said DaSilva.

She added, “We’ve always preached be prepared at all times throughout the year; it’s not just a hurricane kit but an emergency kit that you should have on hand. Your house could be on fire, that’s not a national emergency but that affects you, that is a hazard to you.”

DeSilva said HMCI plans to create a CERT group on Little Cayman in August once the coronavirus restrictions have been lifted.

Report by Andrel Harris.

If you value our service, if you have turned to us in the past few days or weeks for verified, factual updates, if you have watched our live streaming of press conferences or sent an article to a friend... please consider a donation. Quality local journalism was at risk before the coronavirus crisis. It is now deeply threatened. Even a small amount can go a long way to sustaining our mission of informing the public. We need our readers’ financial support now more than ever.