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Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency: An Interview with Ronald Jackson, Executive Director

CSG spoke to Ronald Jackson, Executive Director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) to better understand how Caribbean countries approach increasingly frequent weather events in the region.


Ronald Jackson, CDEMA

DR = Dan Roberts

RJ = Ronald Jackson

DR: Mr Jackson, in your view, what are the keys to successful disaster management? And what are the areas in which you've had greatest success?

RJ: We still grappling with problems in the Caribbean even in the areas where we have had success. For example, encouraging people to evacuate early and head into emergency shelters. However, through strong community based mechanisms we have had success in deploying our disaster risk management systems. It demonstrates the value of having systems that are not only centrally managed but which are facilitated through a decentralised network from regional to national to sub-national and indeed at the community level. Our communities and their designated groups have invariably become true first responders through such a system. This has allowed us to make some gains on the willingness to evacuate thereby minimising the impact on lives. More still needs to be done but there are positive signs that we are making headway.

Our major successes are in hurricanes and flooding, in part because we experience them on a frequent basis; we are well drilled in responding to this type of emergency. There are still gaps in the level of preparedness and this may lead one to wonder how we have been so successful in managing these types of disaster responses, but that is largely because we have had to do this again and again so we have become skilled at managing within our constraints. A key ingredient in this type of success is always the presence of strong leadership that is able to galvanise political actors, private sector stakeholders, other technical arms of Government, and the public around the need to be decisive and effective with the deployment of limited resources. That’s not different from any jurisdiction really, but we have been able to circumnavigate some of the problems, which can, on occasion, be slowed down by bureaucracy.

These efforts have in the past been examined by the Associated Press which compared the response efforts of, to take a Commonwealth example, the resource constrained Government of Jamaica favourably in their tackling of hurricanes when compared to the United States on Hurricane Katrina. The difference maybe that smaller countries are aware of their limitations and work to maximise resources by acting early, using sound planning, and clear communication with their respective population. We have found emergency management organisations that have been transparent in their communication become very trusted amongst the populations.

Moreover, we have always acted quickly. For example, we were the first to “put eyes” on Dominica after Hurricane Maria and get on the ground. We requested support from our international partners, who were happy to assist but had to seek clearance for the request. However, we could not wait and so we became innovative, the necessity to quickly establish contact with Dominica lead us to engage our Regional Security Systems colleagues. We were able to secure the assistance of their surveillance aircraft and we flew over Dominica until we had enough video footage to compile a preliminary damage map and initial damage assessment. Many times over we have been innovative because our circumstances demanded.

DR: You mention the importance of trust; how can that trust be developed?

RJ: As with COVID-19, or any other event, you have to be transparent and provide the public with access to the information. You obviously have to adapt that approach based on cultural context but what is consistent throughout is that all the information that is available has to be put to the public. This can result in further pressure on a Government or its agents, but that can be managed better than misinformation or obfuscation. This approach was quite visible in the CARICOM countries during their response to COVID-19. The willingness to come and face the public and constantly answer tough questions and provide information increases trust. That’s how we work at CDEMA, we try as best as we can to be transparent with the public. Even shedding light on things that might be a little uncomfortable such as the state of preparedness of our countries. We address this question in annual dedicated press conferences and we are very forthright in whether we think the region is prepared or not prepared. The Media representatives we interact with have indicated that the public looks forward to hearing from us on these issues and trusts us our message, even when they know we are resource constrained.

DR: You spoke of the use of a surveillance plane in Dominica - how do you think emerging technologies will help with disaster response and preparedness?

RJ: It is tremendously important. Two years ago we started looking into Artificial Intelligence and machine learning and how we can pull these technologies together alongside high-resolution satellite data to better plan for, respond to, and recover from extreme weather events. It is certainly an area in which we would like to see increased funding. We have been looking at platforms for consequence management to get better situational awareness in the field using current and emerging technologies and data platforms which would allow us to be more efficient in the deployment and allocation of our resources. It is an area we have to look at investing in. Particularly in telecommunications it is important to keep advancing. We have a tender out now to enhance our telecommunications capabilities. Speaking of Commonwealth it is important to note that the Government of Canada has provided us the grant support to allow us to upgrade our telecommunications cache so that we can better provide communication from our coordination centre to the field during disaster responses, as well as facilitating citizen communication in areas that are badly affected by a hazard event. This will allow us to better target our response as well as provide a conduit to at least ensure family members know their loved ones are safe. In short technology will enable better emergency management programming in terms of preventing, responding and recovering from a catastrophe or a crisis.

DR: What are the main difficulties that CDEMA faces in preparing for increased disaster risk in the Caribbean?

RJ: One of the main difficulties will always be financing, but I think it is deeper than that. When you look analytically at the financing challenge you find that it is really the confluence of a number of things. In that regard the greatest challenge we face is really an inability to invest in programmes that are addressing the underlying risk drivers.

If we look at recent crises and disasters including the current the COVID-19 Pandemic we see that these hazards have a deeper impact on societies where there is a greater prevalence of poverty and inequality. Poverty, for example, is not something that you can easily wish away or eradicate, but it is something that you can reduce over time. Alongside that there are issues related to land use, planning and management as well as imperfect regulatory environments. All of those challenges come together to create a scenario where the resources that are being allocated for addressing Disaster Risk could be somewhat ineffective if those drivers of risk are not being tackled in the ongoing programme efforts. Our success in tackling Climate Change or Disaster Risk depends on our ability to attack those core and fundamental drivers. At CDEMA we place a significant amount of effort to get all actors in both these spheres to harmonise their resources and their programmes to jointly tackle those core issues.

The other challenge we see is the issue of capacity, specifically the availability and even distribution of this capacity. Some countries that have an abundance well trained personnel while others may not have enough. This impacts the consistency of our programmes and the timely delivery of results.

The issue is both technical and human.

We have people graduating from tertiary institutions who are educated in the theoretical concepts but are not all able to work in an operational context or able to translate their theoretical knowledge into applied practice right away. Not all the people who are working in disaster risk management are classically trained in a geophysical science or have a social science background. Some come to it as teachers, others from the military, so they come with different expertise and are possibly learning on the job which, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can slow down the pace of results. Further, if they are not viewed as an authority on the subject they will face challenges in affecting policy decisions.

There are also challenges with availability of the necessary equipment and tools. For a long time we’ve been talking about accessing better technology to understand the spatial representation of risk and risk informed decision making, but there isn’t enough investment in these areas.

DR: How can international cooperation boost this capacity?

RJ: The first thing is better training, and this can happen on two levels. One is in the traditional centres of learning, the tertiary institutions, making sure that degree programmes are structured so that they are churning out professionals who are able to understand, analyse and effectively tackle the problems. Secondly, we have to look at learning on the job, how can we best reskill or “upskill” and retool those already working in positions to ensure that they are able to face the current and future challenges. At CDEMA we are establishing the regional training centre where we work with tertiary institutions to deliver training in emergency response, emergency coordination and simulation exercise design as a means of enhancing the capabilities of emergency management professionals nationally and regionally. This kind of initiative needs to be supported and enhanced. Moreover, offering accredited courses to public and private sector workers will help to equip them with the knowledge and expertise to help manage disasters and emergencies in their sphere of work.

The second is by supporting sustainable financing vehicles of organisations so that they can acquire the tools that they need and upgrade and maintain them from time to time. They could also support an ongoing research and development agenda that will contribute to better understanding of the population and their perception of risk. Other areas such as search and rescue and other response related programmes could also benefit from expertise or experiences from countries within the Commonwealth. A “peer to peer” exchange or a targeted capacity building program could prove a useful platform for cooperation. These must however be designed to be sustainable beyond the project or programme life cycle.

DR = How does CDEMA cooperate with similar agencies globally, and what value does that bring?

RJ = There are several opportunities that arise from sharing of experiences, tools, and practices. There is definitely a place for that, however, it has to be managed. Its not always the case that approaches taken in other places are better than the approach you are using in your jurisdiction, or vice versa. Differences arise not only due to experience and practice, but also how well resourced that jurisdiction may be. That being said, I do believe in cross-jurisdictional sharing, as this is a feature of how we work at CDEMA. We have a number of partnerships and exchanges with some institutions among the Commonwealth and some institutions in other parts of the world. We have various platforms for sharing, though it is not always consistent and can be intermittent. We’ve shared our own approaches with institutions in the Indian Ocean, the Pacific and Africa and they have shared their approach and best practices, such as their approach to integrating climate change and disaster risk reduction at a more strategic level. In the Caribbean the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (5Cs) are running their separate strategy and we are running ours and its not as integrated as it could be.

DR: The increased propensity for disasters in the Caribbean can make it hard for Caribbean countries to access insurance and credit. In your opinion, what can be done to mitigate this?

RJ: I am not an insurance expert but the biggest problem in my mind is that the regions costs are being lumped into the broader hemispheric pricing. This means that pricing is being determined by larger cost assets than we have. That is creating a pricing structure that is probably making the insurance product prohibitive. We need to work out the means to have a pricing that reflects the real cost of our assets and their exposure such that potential consumers are more encouraged to purchase insurance.

On sovereign insurance, the big challenge is the ability of Countries to pay premiums that will yield adequate returns for the level of coverage they can afford. At the moment they are able to afford premium that provides some form of return rather than nothing for the exposed asset. However, when triggered the “payout” maybe a tenth of what they need to address the losses incurred. With mounting disaster losses further potentially compounded by the threat of climate change countries in the region may not be able to cover the level of exposure they now have because it is such a pricy risk. A key strategy that must be pursued is a reduction of exposure so as to make the coverage more affordable, as well as to ensure that the “payout” can be more impactful either in the humanitarian response phase or the recovery phase. Unfortunately I am not certain that exposure is reducing. All the reports I have seen suggests that exposure is on the rise. This may continue to push prices outside of our ability to afford significant cover. There is a need to rebalance the equation between risk financing, prevention and risk reduction.

DR: If you could implement one initiative that would drastically reduce disaster risk – what would it be?

RJ: I am an urban planner, my background teaches me that if we can address planning, development, and the regulatory environment then we would see a tremendous benefit in the reduction in disaster risk and by extension a reduction in cost of these events.

The development planning and regulatory environment within the Caribbean needs to be strengthened. This should be accompanied with better risk to governance and a better citizen participation in the planning and development process. With each adverse event we have seen examples of how positive development practices have minimised post-disaster losses. In all the CARICOM countries we have visited post hurricane impact there were well built homes and some modestly built homes still standing untouched by the devastation. The reason for that was they were designed to specific standards or codes that made them more resilient. This was after a category five storm that was supposed to be off the scale. They say that you can’t build for this, but the evidence does not necessarily support this. All around these buildings there was destruction, they were not shielded, the windows in some instances were blown in but the building and the roofing remained intact. Why is this? We have to see how we can have better compliance with design standards and in our risk management practices to allow us to cope better. As an urban planner we are taught that to reduce the probability of a community being flooded we set properties back further from water sources. We should create flood boundaries and flood fringes. If these measures are taken would it result in a better outcome? My guess is yes. So I believe that if we can tackle the issues related to the regulatory environment and enhance or modernise our development approval and development control processes we will experience, over time, a continued lessening of losses as a result of natural hazard impacts. I would love to see this unfolding in the years to come in the Caribbean.


Our interview with Ronald Jackson will contribute to our focus on disaster management and resilience in the Caribbean in the forthcoming Commonwealth Security Review 2020


*Views expressed are those of Mr Ronald Jackson and not the Commonwealth Security Group.


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