The variety of catastrophes can affect a specific area or a town or a larger zone — inland or coastal if not maritime. Do we develop a plan for each risk or have an umbrella approach with predefined security scenarios and plans?
After the tragic events and losses subsequent to the heavy downpour over Port Louis leading to a flash flood at Chaussee, Caudan, the waterfront and in the low-lying areas of the capital and its suburbs, the national community, all classes and ethnic backgrounds confounded, public and private sectors alike, rose to exemplary levels of solidarity and generosity.
The all-confession prayers that ensued, the national coverage by the private radio stations and the MBC over the coming hours and days and the dramatic images of the MBC crew gave added poignancy to the natural catastrophe and the efforts by everybody including flocking volunteers to lend their helping hand to affected populations.
The Teledon organised last Saturday by the Ministry of National Solidarity and Empowerment with the active help, again, of the MBC was a welcome initiative and an opportunity for Mauritians from all regions, including Rodrigues, to join in.
A remarkable week-long moment then of patriotism, solidarity, unitary mobilization and respect for the grievances of human losses and the difficulties endured by those who lost belongings and property. A sense of collective pride to be Mauritian, which was only marred by those who preferred to play politics of the worst kind, much against the mood of the nation, at the National Assembly.
It was an opportunity for leaders in the Opposition, who have also been in office at various times for nearly twenty out of the past thirty years and pushed forward the city’s infrastructure development, to ask key questions or make valid contributions, rather than play the cheap and easy blame and head-rolling game. That they failed to raise their pitch at the National Assembly and elsewhere in such unforeseeable national circumstances of grief and fortitude is a terrible indictment in itself. Both Mgr Piat and the President have had to call the wolves to more respect and decorum.
As for the habitual tendency for some of our compatriots in the general public, helped by complicit airwave commentators, to become instant and adamant experts in every matter, one need only recall last year’s prolonged press and media hullabaloo about “leakage” from Mare aux Vacoas reservoir, with a variety of allegations including unknown streams, underground holes, deliberate diversions, theft, criminal negligence or worse!
Again, the vociferous few made clarion calls for the responsible Minister to resign as he was either incompetent or grossly negligent on the basis of those summary and somewhat fanciful allegations. Yet, this time, even those airwave hogging habituals managed to keep their expert opinions reasonably at bay, preferring perhaps to acknowledge that, yes, the questions that should rightly be asked from the authorities and need to be asked by the authorities themselves from domain experts in a variety of disciplines, are intrinsically complex and technical.
From all accounts the unprecedented downpour and dramatic flooding of the capital’s low-lying areas took place in the space of two critical hours in the early afternoon, from 14.00 hrs to 16.00 hrs. In some areas the murky furious waters rose by almost 2 meters within a matter of minutes. This did not resemble the heavy rains associated with cyclones, where people have been forewarned and closed up in their homes, and the downpour is spread over 24 or 48 hours over a much larger geographical zone. Several inquiries are under way including the normal judicial inquiry following the loss of lives. Many grey areas need to be clarified without fear and, where applicable, responsibilities identified.
Emergency Management Response
Other questions which have arisen seem to be three-fold. Was the emergency management response over those few fateful hours adequate and, if not in certain or all respects, how can it be improved? This concerns having a close and detailed look at such issues as CCTV systems at Chaussee which could have provided early warning, mobilization of police, SMF, SSU, helicopter squad, fire brigade and national coast guard, traffic flow management and diversions, assistance and rescue provided to the vulnerable, at risk and helpless populations, water pumping and clearance of debris and wreckage, amongst others.
As for the question whether such a massive and very localized cloud phenomenon could have been predicted with probabilistic ease by the Met services, even if their equipment level had included the much talked about weather radar, the jury seems still out, past met Directors holding divergent, if not contradictory, views on the matter. Some think that the costly radar would have added to our system little additional predictive capacity in the case of such a small, heavily rain-charged cloud of barely a few kms in diameter within a much larger cloud formation whose trajectory remains rather uncertain.
Whether Reunion island with a different topography and hundreds of kilometres away issued for their population, perhaps in the high plateaus, warnings to avoid picnics and outings because of uncertain rainy periods, is something of an irrelevancy. Honestly, outside cyclonic periods and fishermen, who in any case really listens to those standard-format met bulletins with their “temps mi-couvert à variable” formula? But clearly the pre- and post-event communication by Met Services had enough unsatisfactory elements for its Director to have been granted early retirement and, on another plane, the PM has announced that, irrespective, Met services will obtain the much-discussed radar to replace the older non-functional one.
The second area of concern authorities have addressed already is to undertake a fresh look at the whole set-up of our procedures and processes relating to permits, drains and flooding with regard to infrastructure development in this cyclonic region of the world. The country has been a vast chantier since 2005 as hundreds of thousands of Mauritians benefit from the new or enlarged roads, bridges, by-passes, drains and sewage systems. Many “corps de metier” in the engineering field are concerned and there are no doubt competent engineers in RDA, CWA, WMA, NDU, Environment, Utilities, Public Infrastructure, Municipalities who, perhaps with their narrow confines or purview, have a say in developments taking place in the country, districts and towns.
Permits are issued by a variety of agencies – from the Municipalities, District Councils, Morcellement Board, and still others. Drain management in towns seems to be the quasi-exclusive responsibility of Municipalities. Do they rate regular river and drain inspection and cleaning exercises at the appropriate priority level? Clearly, a comprehensive review of the procedures and processes has to avoid turf thinking and protection tendencies from various quarters or the comfort zone that may have developed between supervising public engineers and large construction conglomerates. Which largely justifies the recourse for the job to external consultants, who, in addition, may bring in fresh expertise in the areas of concern.
The third area of possible concern is our Disaster Management response system. The current Leader of the Opposition is misguided if, in last fortnight’s Question time, he seemed to suggest that the Commissioner of Police should have called for or waited for the Disaster Management committee to meet under the chair of the Secretary to Cabinet, on a Saturday afternoon, when in any case traffic was already at a standstill and access to Port-Louis limited or blocked. It was fortunate that the CP did initiate whatever urgent actions he felt the circumstances required without waiting for that meeting. Perhaps a video-conferencing formula can be devised for such situations where physical meetings may be difficult (say on a Sunday or late in the evening) but the need for quick detection and action should still be overriding.
No need to change systems that work
The wider question authorities may reflect on is Disaster Management philosophy and plans. We have considerable experience with malaria prevention and have an effective response system for the occasional localized outburst of malaria, chikungunya, dengue, SRAS or even “ver blanc”. So do we for cyclones, with years of accumulated experience with the warning and collective response system. No doubt the Airport, with international norms to respect, has developed and drilled emergency responses to cope with various potential accidents. There is no need to change systems that work, or those that have and can be tested and drilled.
On the other hand, the recently devised torrential rain warning bulletin is far from satisfactory if only because it seems to address the Education sector. And, we may tomorrow be faced with more floods, either in the capital (where the impact can be more dramatic than elsewhere) or elsewhere, occurring at a more inconvenient time or day (school day). We may face other risks such as a relatively rapid lagoon seawater level rise, an explosion in a factory or warehouse storing flammable or dangerous chemicals, a “carambolage” on a main motorway involving dozens of vehicles with human tragedies and consequential blocked traffic or again, the explosion of a lorry carrying LPG gas.
The variety of catastrophes can affect a specific area or a town or a larger zone — inland or coastal if not maritime. Do we develop a plan for each risk or have an umbrella approach with predefined security scenarios and plans? Does the structure and function of the National Disaster committee need to be clarified and beefed up?
Many will be aware or would have heard of the activation of the “plan ORSEC” in France for unexpected natural disasters that cannot be handled by “normal” security processes. This plan is, where necessary, accompanied by the simultaneous activation of a two-level Plan for hospital, ambulance and health services. This typically cartesian French system has oscillated since its introduction 50 years ago, between the one-plan-per-risk approach, or, what has gained current acceptance since 2005, the overall single umbrella approach.
Once activated, the system has a unique boss (in France the Prefet de region) who takes charge of overall operations, all responsibilities and support committees are predefined, chains of command are explicit, mobilization of public, private and civil sectors are detailed, communication protocols and providers are set out and the same system applies for a variety of different risks.
When a medical services emergency plan is activated simultaneously to the “plan ORSEC”, a containerized first-aid and control unit next to the site is immediately set up for casualty treatment and ambulance services to the nearest hospital centres. The same ORSEC plan can be activated in France by a “Prefet maritime” for major coastline or sea disasters. Wikipedia offers a succinct summary of those key features.
This umbrella approach has some cardinal virtues, namely clear and predefined responsibilities, detailed contingency plans, an effective deployment system optimising public and private resources while supervising or monitoring committees are briefed regularly. Perhaps more importantly, the system can be tested and drilled periodically with all identified players. While the modalities can be adapted to the local context, authorities may dwell on the usefulness of an umbrella approach for all potential risks which we do not already cover adequately. We are, after all, fairly conversant with blending French cartesianism with Anglo-Saxon pragmatism in many domains.
* Published in print edition on 12 April 2013