Saturday, February 24, 2018

ODPM bails, citizens step up

At the time this editorial was being written yesterday afternoon, the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) had nothing on its website about the more than 24 hours of uninterrupted rainfall across Trinidad. Its first Facebook post—a flood bulletin originating from the Meteorological Office—was at 10.30 a.m. yesterday. At midday it posted a list of disaster management hotlines at each of the country's regional corporations.

Its activity on Twitter was the same.
At no point during the night, when major flooding was already endangering and traumatising thousands of citizens, did the ODPM issue a single advisory to the public—not on its social media platforms, not via traditional media and not via mass SMS messaging. As yet there has been no explanation from the agency as to why it failed to fulfil its stated mandate to “co-ordinate response and recovery operations in order to protect the people, environment and economy and ensure a disaster resilient nation.”

The Met Office began issuing flood bulletins at 4.30 p.m. on Divali afternoon along with satellite photos of the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) over the country. At that time, the Met Office was reporting 18 to 24 hours of rainfall. The ODPM did not re-issue this bulletin; indeed the primary national disaster agency was silent on Tuesday, Wednesday and the early hours of Thursday morning.

As the ODPM bailed on its responsibilities, leaving thousands of citizens on their own, with little or no institutional guidance, to fend for themselves, civic-minded citizens stepped in to do the job. The Trinidad and Tobago Weather Centre, a three-year-old online organisation, provided updates throughout the night for those who could access it. At 10.40 p.m. on Divali, the Weather Centre—not a State agency—alerted the public that the Solomon Hochoy Highway in Chase Village was impassable. Before and after that, they posted videos, photos, regular updates and relevant links.

Traffic Spotters TT, a network of drivers on Whatsapp and Facebook, flooded the public with advisories on road conditions all over the island. Up to press time they were providing location-specific data: tree across Siparia Old Road, tree cleared off Siparia Old Road; flooding on back roads between Couva and Chaguanas; water level rising in the vicinity of Cedar Hill Road, Claxton Bay; T&TEC doing work after Freeport. Videos and photos accompany most of their posts.

In Carapo, as in several other locations under water, friends and neighbours were yesterday making makeshift rafts attached to ropes and rescuing people at risk of being swallowed by raging flood waters.
It is to them the population turns during these days of distress, these civic-minded, active citizens working in the interest of the public when State institutions, supported by taxpayers' money, resourced and with access to superior equipment and communications networks, are non- or barely functional. The ODPM must account to the public and this newspaper commends first-responders, ordinary citizens, for their activism.