Monday, February 19, 2018

Case of collapsed communications

WITH the Caribbean being hit by the most destructive hurricanes on record, and Trinidad and Tobago experiencing devastating levels of rainfall and flooding, it is sheer negligence for the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) to be without a chief executive officer.

Six months after Dr Stephen Ramroop vacated the office, the position of CEO remains vacant with deputy CEO, Col Dave Williams handling the duties on an interim basis.

The consequences of such a lack of leadership at the country's key disaster preparedness and management agency are now being felt where it hurts most. In communities throughout south, central and east Trinidad, people are stranded by the thousands, some without water and food and with their water-logged possessions in ruin. If National Security Minister Edmund Dillon has an explanation for the failure to fill this critical vacancy, this newspaper would certainly like to hear it. Meanwhile, in the absence of an effective CEO, the ODPM is operating like a chicken without a head.

It took three days of flooding before deputy CEO Williams came before the media to put in a defence for the ODPM's failure at a time of national need. With a straight face, he rejected public criticism, insisting that the organisation had succeeded but had been failed by its communications. That, to put mildly, was like saying the concrete is good but the cement is bad. If Col Williams doesn't understand the core importance of communication in disaster preparedness and management, then he is in the wrong job. On Thursday, poor communication could have cost a family of four their lives were it not for the heroic courage of some residents of Caparo who dove into flood waters to save the pregnant April Ravello, her son, Njisane, daughter, Angel, and husband, Nathyon Lewis.

If residents Victor Ali, Neil Joseph and Victor Dick did not have the compassion and courage to dive into the flood waters to rescue the family whose car had been swept off the road by powerful, rising waters, the country would be in mourning today. We join the rest of the country in saluting these men and the members of the Caparo community who came to this family's rescue. The communication failure was not only at the ODPM.

While we acknowledge the tremendous work done by local government staff throughout the 14 regions, we must insist that first responders are no substitute for the national leadership required for keeping the public informed, alert and comforted. For three days, the government hierarchy seemed to be on holiday when so many people were most in need of help.

This raises the issue of the Prime Minister's decision to bring the administrative functions of the Ministry of Public Administration and Communications under his office following the hospitalisation of Minister Maxie Cuffie. The OPM's many communication failures, including its handling of the flooding disaster, suggest that the cabinet is in urgent need of a substantive and effective Minister of Communication.

Without leadership and information, the entire country will be left to cope on its own, guided by social media, with its good, bad and ugly.