JAMAICA: Learning to prepare for hurricanes as others prepare for snow
Thomas Cromwell

In early September hurricane Ivan swept through the Caribbean causing widespread devastation in the region and contributing to an estimated $2.2 billion in hurricane-related damage to Caribbean islands this year. Jamaica was one of the countries hit hardest by this Category 4 storm, and the cost of reconstruction on the island is estimated to be $580 million, or 8.5 percent of Jamaica's GDP. DiplomaticTraffic had the opportunity to speak with Gordon Shirley, Ambassador of Jamaica to the United States, on the embassy's role during the emergency and the hurricane's aftermath in Jamaica and the region.

Although the storm was one of the most destructive in history, damaging housing stock in the south, the farm belt and many fishing villages, the eye of the storm passed just south of the island, reducing the potential damage.

But the key to a quick recovery was acting on what the island learned from previous hurricanes.

The experience of Hurricane Gilbert (1988) helped the country to prepare for Ivan, the ambassador said. The government moved 19,000 people from low lying areas and the coast, reducing the loss of life. Housing in the major urban areas saw little damage because it had been rebuilt according to code after Gilbert. The telephone system worked well because many power lines had been buried underground, and 80 percent of power was restored within a couple of days because many wooden poles had been replaced with concrete poles or wires put underground, he said.

The embassy in Washington was responsible for coordinating the relief effort from the Western Hemisphere, the ambassador explained. "It is the standard practice that the lead mission takes that role until normalcy is restored."

Cooperation between the public and private sectors was another important factor in rebuilding efforts. After the storm the government quickly established an office of reconstruction to coordinate the efforts of the many agencies on the island, the ambassador said. "The government has been clear that they are not going to attempt to put in place another distribution infrastructure to deal with the movement of goods and services across the island," he said. "But instead will put any hard aid coming to the island through the private distribution networks and give people vouchers to then be able to access whatever they need."

Outside support was also critical and aid to the Caribbean came from many countries, Ambassador Shirley said. "We are particularly grateful to the Congress and the president for the appropriation of $100 million dollars for the Caribbean," he said. "That is a significant show of support for the region."

The embassy itself had an important role to play. During the storm the embassy established a bank of 12 telephones manned around the clock by Jamaican national volunteers to field calls from their citizens, tourists and the press. The embassy also used its Web site to facilitate information flow. "We were able to provide hourly updates throughout the period until normalcy had been restored," the ambassador explained.

The ambassador emphasized that the disaster was a Caribbean problem, and that the embassy's efforts in Washington were first aimed at getting support for the region. "We were not asking for assistance just for Jamaica," he said. "First lets talk about the Caribbean, and once [support] is there, then we can talk about how it can be absorbed and what is the most effective was to use it in the region."

"The entire region remains highly concerned about the situation in Grenada," he said. Before Hurricane Ivan, Grenada had a viable economy, he stressed. "The day after Hurricane Ivan passed, everything was gone. This is the first time we recognized that it was possible for a disaster to almost completely wipe out an island."

Ambassador Shirley listed the damage to Grenada, which has been estimated at $889 million: "Ninety percent of the housing stock was damaged; all major buildings were damaged; all utilities were gone; spices [a major source of income] were destroyed; all hotels were destroyed. There was no economic activity!"

The ambassador emphasized that Grenada benefited greatly from the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. "He did not have to do it, but he did it," he said. "And the region is grateful to him for having gone to see it firsthand. [The visit] helped to restore or to raise the level of awareness of the extent of the damage in Grenada."

The answer to future hurricanes lies in risk mitigation rather than only focusing on relief and reconstruction, the ambassador said. Millions of dollars that could have been spent on education and health have now been spent on the rebuilding effort, he explained.

"There is a great opportunity cost," he said. "If the funds had been spent on development projects, on social projects, education and so on, our development process would have been far ahead."

The ambassador listed steps that could be taken in the future. Build sea walls to reduce damage to fishing villages. Rebuild roads away from beaches. Rebuild housing away from the beaches and riverbeds.

But it is not so easy, he explained. People gravitate toward those areas. "They go as close as they can to the beach," he said. "So it requires a certain political will to put in place a system that would prevent them from going back to areas that are known to be disaster prone."

Preparing for hurricanes should be like preparing for snow, the ambassador suggested: "I like to say that here you have the threat of snow, but when it comes it won't be a surprise. You have infrastructure designed to take care of it, and if you shut down for one day or two. That is fine. Well, we know that hurricanes come every year. Or we are going to get very high wind loads during the period between September and November."

Jamaica and other Caribbean countries are now investing in building infrastructure that will mitigate hurricane-related damage, so that seasons of destruction, such as the one just ended, will no longer be so disruptive of normal life and development. Every year the region should get better and better at preparing for hurricanes and avoid the costly cycle of relief and reconstruction after every storm, he suggested.

Biography of Ambassador Gordon Shirley

Gordon Shirley is Jamaica's eighth Ambassador to the United States of America, as well as its Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States. He assumed duties in July 2004.

Ambassador Shirley attended the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad from 1974-1977, where he obtained a BSc. in Mechanical Engineering (First Class Honours). He later attended Harvard University, Boston, Massachusetts, where he obtained a Masters in Business Administration in Operations and Finance (with Honours) in 1984. Three years later, he completed his Doctorate in Business Administration, Operations Management at the same University.

Ambassador Shirley began his career at Alcan Jamaica Limited (a subsidiary of Alcan Aluminum Company Limited), where he worked as Senior Mechanical Engineer from 1977 to 1982. He served as Assistant Professor of Operations Management at the University of California, Los Angeles from 1987 to 1991. He returned to Jamaica to work at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, serving as Head of the Department of Management Studies from 1992 to 1997 and was a former Executive Chairman of the Jamaica Public Service Company (a subsidiary of Mirant Corporation).

He wore many hats while at the University of the West Indies, including serving as the Professor of Management, 1991-2004; Executive Director, Mona School of Business, 1997-2004; and Academic Director of the Master of Science Programme in Computer Based Management Information Systems, 1994-2004.

Ambassador Shirley has won a number of scholarships and awards: the Harvard University Graduate School of Business Administration Doctoral Fellowship; Hewlett Packard Award, Harvard Business School; the Alcan Jamaica Post Graduate Scholarship and a Jamaican Government scholarship.

He has published a number of leading academic publications internationally and consulted with organizations in the United States and the Caribbean. Ambassador Shirley has also been appointed to serve on several corporate Boards of Directors.

He hails from St. Mary.