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On message: St Vincent eruption puts early warning to the test

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Сент-Винсент и Гренадины
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Author: Sophie Hares

The morning after La Soufriere volcano carpeted St Vincent and the Grenadines with millions of tons of ash, disaster management expert La Fleur Quammie put on goggles and a mask to head through an eerie landscape to coordinate her team helping people in emergency shelters.

Months of awareness-raising and extensive TV, radio and social media messaging meant many in the danger zone were packed and ready to evacuate before the volcano erupted, says Quammie, acting senior assistant secretary at the Ministry of National Mobilisation.

But despite working flat out to identify as many vulnerable children and adults as they could before the blast, her team quickly discovered elderly people who had been abandoned in their homes and needed to be taken to safety, she says.

“It’s a learning curve, there’s always positives in every disaster,” says Quammie, whose department deals with children, gender-based violence and social protection.

“In the last eruption we didn't have gender-sensitization, child-focused scenarios and interventions, so we want to ensure it's concretized in the response mechanism and is taken into consideration.”

Thanks to extensive early warning, no deaths or injuries were reported from the April 9 eruption that could cost half the country’s GDP and displaced 20,000 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Menaced by increasingly ferocious and costly hurricanes, alongside eruptions, earthquakes and floods, Caribbean countries have made huge strides towards developing multi-hazard early warning systems (EWS), said experts.

But gaps in technology and patchy messaging strategies are putting the region’s 44 million people at risk.

Andria Grosvenor, deputy executive director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), says that while St. Vincent’s early warning proved effective, the country lacked sufficient equipment to monitor La Soufriere and had to borrow it from other volcanic sites in the region.

Insufficient technical gear is also making it harder to monitor other hazards such as tsunamis, meaning vulnerable communities have to rely more heavily on spotting natural warning signs, she says.

CDEMA, which has long been working to bolster and coordinate EWS, is now setting up a consortium to bring together all groups dealing with hurricanes and other events to hammer out how to best get information across, she says.

“A warning is only effective if it gets to the people who need it most, in the way they can interpret it when they need it most and have the ability to take the right action,” says Grosvenor.

ATTENTION TO DETAIL

These days, few know how to blow traditional conch shells to alert people to impending threats. Instead, WhatsApp messages, the CAP emergency app, Facebook and Instagram along with radio and television are commonly used.

Bullhorns blast out alerts if the internet and power are knocked out while leafletting and town hall meetings help educate and prepare people. But how the message is delivered and worded can substantially change how people respond, say experts.

In Antigua and Barbuda, EWS have evolved since Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc in 2017, but still need a stronger gender focus and to better target vulnerable groups, says Jamie Saunders, program officer at the Directorate of Gender Affairs.

People from low-income backgrounds, for example, might be reluctant to go to shelters if their children lack pajamas, so telling people in advance that supplies are available can help persuade them to evacuate, he explains.

“Some still struggle to understand that the messaging does matter, they think that putting out a message on the radio or TV and warning of an impending storm is enough,” he says.

Ensuring first responders and shelter managers understand the elderly and disabled have different vulnerabilities and coping capacities can also make a difference. As can confronting concerns LGBTQI-identifying people have about potential discrimination in emergency shelters, says Saunders.

Throughout the Caribbean, greater consideration still needs to be given to protecting women and children in emergencies, say experts. Often, they may not be classed as vulnerable but run the risk of violence in shelters and are often heavily impacted financially by disasters.

Raúl Salazar, chief of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) - Regional Office for the Americas and the Caribbean, says working closely with communities is crucial to ensure EWS better factor in gender, social and cultural considerations.

"The multi-hazard situation in St. Vincent shows that EWS need to be comprehensive and people-centered, plus emphasize emergency and disaster risk communication,” he says.

FINE-TUNING FORECASTS

Across the region, the Climate Risk Early Warning Systems (CREWS) initiative has strengthened meteorological hazard warnings and developed impact-based forecasts to help countries fine tune alerts and better prepare for storms.

Implemented by the World Bank, World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and UNDRR, it too has focused strongly on closing the early warning gender gap.

Building upon existing networks and establishing a common Caribbean framework is essential to strengthen multi-hazard early warning and ensure forecasting can better help protect communities, says Donna Pierre, WMO project coordinator.

“We’re trying to move a step forward and have a standard operating procedure established… if we are to really provide input into the Sendai Framework, we’ll have to have some means of measuring the effectiveness of these systems,” she says.

Now, as St. Vincent recovers from the eruption, it will be analyzing how to improve its EWS to better deal with the multiple, cascading threats it faces including eruptions, hurricanes, COVID-19 and dengue, says Quammie.

“We’ll learn from this event. When we build back, we build back better,” she says.