Monday, 30 June 2014

WORK IN PROGRESS: With ODPEM's evolving role come a wave of complex new challenges

REACHING OUT: Portmore residents interacting with the ODPEM team at Saturday's expo at the Portmore Mall. Inset, Glaze addresses the gathering.

As with any public Jamaican agency, the challenges facing the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) in their quest to protect lives and educate people grow more imposing and increasingly complex as the very goals they are seeking to achieve. So when the agency's Deputy Director-General Horace Glaze got wind of the newly emerged and mysterious chikungunya virus threatening lives across the region, it only served to remind him that every day brings yet more unwelcomed guests to the front door.

"The Ministry of Health has been telling us that the virus is presently all around us in the region. It is a virus somewhat similar to the malaria and dengue virus, and it is associated with mosquito bites," Glaze tells TALLAWAH. "We want to encourage our citizens, especially persons living in Portmore, where people have always been complaining about mosquitoes, to be on the alert."

As it happens, Glaze is standing at the this very moment in a lot adjacent to the bustling Portmore Mall, as ODPEM staffers stage one of the agency's community awareness expos aimed at enlightening residents about the supreme importance of disaster risk management and the essential precautionary measures that that entails. We are, after all, approaching the height of the 2014 hurricane season, and June marks Hurricane Preparedness Month.

But more on the virus. "There are no reported cases in Jamaica," Glaze assures us, "but the health ministry informs us that as soon as a single case is identified we pretty much have to treat it as an outbreak." He adds, "This is a new virus and we don't know what can happen, so they have heightened surveillance at the ports." 

Given our history of devastating floods, earthquakes and other destructive natural hazards (new and recurrent), the Caribbean is famously a disaster-prone geographic zone. Jamaicans, like everyone else, are fearful, and this very much informs how ODPEM continues to step up their efforts. 

But, as Glaze emphasizes, it's the frequently emerging new hazards, like the chikungunya, that makes disaster management more and more challenging for the agency year after year. "That's why the continued education our people is so important," he says. "We have to be able to respond despite how new these issues may be to us. We still have to have a mechanism that is robust and flexible enough to respond to these types of incidents." 

Is Jamaica's present mechanism robust and flexible enough? "Our national disaster mechanism I believe is robust enough. What we have to do is exercise it and test it," Glaze points out. "Don't just wait on the hurricane but continue to carry out the exercises that we do and start to have them more frequently and get everyone involved in the process."

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