~~But outside operation, coordination lacked~~
The individual components of the disaster management system in St. Eustatius and Saba functioned well before, during and after last year’s three major hurricanes, due to the great efforts on an island level, but considerable improvement is needed in the cooperation and coordination between the islands and with the Netherlands. And, the dependence on St. Maarten should be reduced.
These are some of the conclusions of the Inspectorate of the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security after an evaluation of the implementation of the disaster and crisis plans in St. Eustatius and Saba shortly before, during and after Hurricanes Irma, Josh and Maria in September last year. Saba Island Governor Jonathan Johnson and the National Government Representative (“Rijksvertegenwoordiger”) had also requested an evaluation.
Until Hurricane Irma, the islands’ disaster system never had to act upon a large event. The Justice and Security Inspectorate didn’t include St. Maarten in its evaluation, since it has no jurisdiction in this autonomous country in the Kingdom. Some of the Inspectorate’s recommendations do relate to St. Maarten where it concerns the need to reduce dependence on the larger sister island in areas such as transportation and communication.
“The Inspectorate concluded that all parties prepared well for the arrival of Hurricane Irma and that the plans and procedures in the Caribbean Netherlands are largely present. The continuity of the crisis organisation, even though under pressure, was not jeopardised thanks to the great efforts of all involved. I express my appreciation for the way the islands handled the hurricane crisis,” stated Minister of Security and Justice Ferd Grapperhaus in a recent letter that he sent to the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament along with the Inspectorate’s report. The Inspectorate was very positive about the functioning of the individual disaster management entities in the Caribbean Netherlands and implied that without their hard work, some 20 days in a row, the situation would have been worse. “The utmost was demanded of people, but the continuity was never at risk,” stated the Inspectorate, which just like the minister gave the emergency system entities a big compliment. However, the cooperation and feedback between the islands, with the National Government Representative in Bonaire and with the Netherlands needs improvement. “The Inspectorate concludes that the system of disaster management doesn’t completely function as it should as regulated in the Safety Law BES,” it was stated in the 59-page report. “In practice, the authorities on the islands managed to deal with the consequences of the hurricanes in a speedy manner, but not thanks to a well-functioning disaster management system. Bluntly speaking, St. Eustatius and Saba were ‘lucky’ that a lot had to be arranged for the devastated St. Maarten and that they could hitch a ride, ‘lucky also’ that there were no fatal victims or badly injured persons,” it was stated in the report.
The coordination and cooperation at the time of the hurricanes could have been more efficient. “There were discussions about roles, tasks and responsibilities, and there was a lack of clarity regarding the prioritising and transport,” it was stated in the report. Thanks to the preparatory work of the hospitals in Statia, Saba, but also Bonaire, the medical emergency evacuation of patients was arranged.
The Inspectorate also looked at the role of the National Government Representative at the time, Gilbert Isabella. The latter was only in position in a limited manner and he formally didn’t scale up to coordination level 3, while the circumstances did qualify for such. The Representative mostly forwarded the requests for assistance from Statia and Saba to The Hague and provided feedback to the islands.
Logistically things were insufficiently prepared and arranged. “Logistics appeared a separate problem due to the loss of the St. Maarten airport. The supplying of goods, but also of people wasn’t a given anymore. Apart from a stock build-up, logistics are not included in the plans, and neither is an exterior coordination point. This makes it hard to coordinate and prioritise logistic requests.”
The focus on logistics from the Netherlands was mainly focused on St. Maarten. “Logically so because this island was the hardest hit. However, this put Saba and St. Eustatius in a dependent position, dependent on what was supplied to St. Maarten and whatever share they could get of that.” Another problem was the reserves of water and medication in Statia and Saba which were depleted within a week. The cisterns were largely contaminated.
The loss of the communication network on the islands had already been predicted in an earlier report. The loss of the telecommunication masts in St. Maarten made things worse: not only did the islands have internal communication problems because the networks were down, but also the contact with the Netherlands and international communication was difficult.
The Inspectorate presented six main recommendations: arrange the operational coordination, make the telecommunications network and transport less dependent on St. Maarten, arrange for adequate connection facilities for contacts between the emergency services, take an inventory of the nearby admission possibilities for emergency patients, and design a more robust crisis organisation with reserve teams, for example.
The Inspectorate discovered a shortcoming in the National Safety Profile of the Netherlands: this plan only includes safety risks in the Netherlands, but not the Caribbean risks such as hurricanes and tsunamis.
The minister promised Parliament that he would discuss the report’s findings with the islands’ authorities and the National Government Representative and would ask them to include the recommendations in preparing for the new hurricane season.
The Daily Herald.