By Tad Stoner
The organization of government’s response to national emergencies – be they hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, oil spills, pandemic disease, air crashes or radical disruption at the port – is staggering.
Tightly structured, with clear chains of command, designating a place – and roster of duties – for everyone in every division, the plans are overwhelming.
Hurricanes are, however, the only disaster that are seasonal – starting every year on June 1 and ending Nov. 30. Much of the National Hurricane Plan is built on lessons learned from September 2004’s Hurricane Ivan, the largest in Cayman’s history, causing $1.4 billion in damage and, frankly, wrecking almost everything in sight.
This year, the National Hurricane Committee has written a brand-new plan, extending to at least three volumes – depending on how you count – and even, in fact, disbanding itself. Emergencies are now managed by the Hazard Management Executive and the National Hazard Management Council. Together, they have created the National Hazard Management Plan.
The first volume, general information on national disaster management structure and the welter of operational committees, runs 47 pages; the second volume, at 85 pages, introduces the National Emergency Operations Centre and describes procedures for alerting the population and activating the NEOC – at the Central Fire Station on Owen Roberts Drive.
Finally, the third volume is specific to hurricanes. It provides 181 pages of comprehensive detail. An additional four volumes focus on emergencies other than hurricanes, while two final volumes describe recovery procedures and disaster relief.
The plan creates five “clusters” of broad responsibility, and under them, 17 subcommittees with specific assignments – from evacuation to shelters to communications, security, law enforcement, search and rescue, medical relief, utilities and communications and, among the more gruesome, mass fatalities
Most government agencies sit on more than one subcommittee. The police, for example, sit on five of the 17; the National Roads Authority on three; Public Works on four; and the Health Services Authority on three.
RCIPS Superintendant Adrian Seales says the police have their own hierarchy within the emergency plans. Chief inspectors are organized into an elite “silver” command in George Town, West Bay, the Sister Islands and a combined Eastern Districts team.
Each area has particular “beats,” 15 in George Town alone, which are roughly similar to the neighborhood policing teams. “We pre-deploy officers,” Seales says, working with social services and Cayman’s 16 shelters – “some work security and public order because it can get quite hectic.
“We deploy to some commercial buildings, on West Bay Road, for example, and the Ritz- Carlton, and others around George Town,” he says.
Inspector-level bronze commanders report to their district silver commanders and “go teams” are prepared to counter looting. Police work 12-hour shifts, all leave is cancelled and, Inspector Seales says, it’s “all hands on deck.”
While police announce evacuations of threatened neighborhoods – South Sound, Spotts, Red Bay, Savannah, part of West Bay – subsequent to mandates by the head of Hazard Management, Fire Services are the ones actually moving those who cannot move themselves.
“We do firefighting [and] search and rescue, and provide support to the RCIPS in manpower and equipment as required by the incident commander,” says John Bodden, acting chief fire officer.
As police keep roads clear, Fire Services aid mass movements, pluck people from flooded homes and off rooftops, and deliver them to the shelters when necessary.
But, both Seales and Bodden say, they operate only when storm winds are less than 40 miles per hour. Above that, however, and it is simply too dangerous to be out of doors, much less on the roads.
“There is lots of flying debris. You could be impaled unless you’re protected,” Seales says, and when the wind hits sustained speeds of 155 mph, “everyone is battened in for 36 hours to 48 hours.”
The Health Services Authority’s five ambulances and their two-person crews work 12-hour shifts during a storm. They operate three vehicles at any given time, serving the West Bay Health Centre, the North Side Health Centre and Cayman Islands Hospital.
“Schedule times may vary depending on the storm specifics and when it’s expected to make landfall,” says Lisa Parks, public relations officer at Cayman Islands Hospital, describing both “before” and “after” teams. “Emergency preparation procedures are part of HSA’s emergency contingency plan. Focusing on both patient and supplies management – which may include the transferring of patients to medical shelters or home, decisions made on a case by case basis.”
The fleet – three Chevy 4500 Trauma Hawks and two Ford E450s – stops operating when winds reach 45mph, but, until then, calls are answered on the basis of urgency. “Emergency calls are responded to on an individual basis depending on risk assessment. [There] may be a slight increase due to preparedness activities, however [a] drastic increase has not been recorded in previous years,” she says, addressing the frequency and type of emergency calls.
“Most of them, she says, are “cuts, scrapes from preparations or clearing of debris, and related injuries, and even include carbon monoxide poisoning by people using generators that are not properly vented.”
Emergency crews also manage stress problems: “[There is a] higher incidence of anxiety [and] depression,’ she says.
Although the hospital functioned as a de facto shelter for hundreds during Hurricane Ivan, it is not designed as such, and Parks was adamant that non-medical cases stay away.
“The hospital is not a shelter nor are the District Health Centres,” she says. “The hospital shelters staff and their families to maintain operations. We do not want any association as a shelter as this would greatly disrupt patient care and create further strain on our ability to serve the community as a care facility.”
The hospital is undeniably attractive, however, with a 2MW generator that can run the entire facility for 100 hours on a tank of gasoline, functioning kitchens and, of course, nearby medical care.
HMCI Awareness and Education Officer Simon Boxall says care is available at the one-per-district Emergency Medical Shelters, and recalled 2008’s Hurricane Gustav: “Emergency services will make an assessment to determine if assistance can be given. If it is deemed too dangerous, the emergency service will establish contact with the affected persons and give appropriate guidance on care until it is safe for them to deploy …”
During Gustav, he says, “someone called 911 with chest pains – at the time the caller was advised that ambulances were not running due to the presence of hurricane force winds, but an ambulance would be dispatched once the conditions were safe. I believe in that case the resident was driven in a personal vehicle to the hospital and in the end the ambulance was not needed.”
Evacuations, both voluntary and mandatory, of both residents and tourists, is overseen by the evacuation subcommittee, chaired by the CEO of the Cayman Islands Airports Authority.
He also decides when to close – and later reopen – Owen Roberts International Airport, coordinating with incoming and outgoing airlines.
Prior to Ivan – and more so in its immediate wake – Owen Roberts was swamped by people desperate to escape, abandoning thousands of cars, overwhelming the terminal.
This time, however, says Kafara Augustine, CIAA business development and marketing manager, “our safety, security and customer service staff will be out to manage the crowds per our mass evacuation plan,” effected, she says, “in the most efficient, timely, safe and expeditious manner under the circumstances existing at the time.”
If it sounds vague, it’s because predictions are difficult: “It is hard to say based on how many people are able to evacuate before the storm lands,” and never mind how many seek to leave afterwards – and that depends on when the airport is reopened.
A “facilities and projects manager” does a damage and operational assessment, determining if buildings are safe. The CEO will inform “all relevant parties and the airlines” to ensure security of arrivals and departures. During Ivan, Director-General of Civil Aviation Richard Smith personally led efforts to clear debris from the runway while immigration moved into an aircraft hangar.
“If the condition of any relevant facility, including that of the terminal building, is not suitable for operations, all options in respect of making alternate arrangements for temporary terminal facilities will be exercised and logistical accommodation made, to the best degree allowed by the circumstances,” Augustine says.
Private evacuation flights operated by particular companies, she says, “shall be determined by a predetermined priority list.”
She said that the three-year plan for expansion of arrival and departure halls was unlikely to interfere with emergency plans: “Airport redevelopment will be done in phases and all these factors are taken into consideration when we agree to the contractor’s work-safety plans.”
The lessons from Ivan extend to the NEOC itself, located in Fire Services headquarters, but deemed inadequate to the task, according to Director of Hazard Management Cayman Islands McCleary Frederick. “The Central Fire Station has served the purpose over the years, however Hurricane Ivan showed that the facilities are no longer adequate for the current disaster-response structure,” he says.
“There are plans to utilize spaces in the Government Administration Building to use for the NEOC. Work is currently under way and should be completed by end of August 2015.”