Enhancing last-mile early warning in the Caribbean

Mar 5, 2015

Working with Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Caribbean, UNDP and partners are undertaking measures to ensure that warning information on potential and impending disasters is fast, reliable and effective.

Consisting of many low-lying coastal areas, SIDS in the Caribbean are particularly vulnerable to such threats. In addition to the annual hurricane season, flooding from rainfall and storm surges is common, and earthquakes and submarine landslides are real threats. Activity of underwater volcanoes—such as Kick-em Jenny, off the coast of Grenada and the Grenadines also has the potential to generate tsunamis. 

Despite the seriousness of these threats, disaster risk management officials in the region have often observed slow responses to emergencies in many isolated communities. Communication—especially between national disaster management authorities and communities—is often challenging, with a gap in reaching the “last mile”.

To address these gaps, community members and Government officials from Dominica, Grenada, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines have worked with UNDP, the European Commission’s Humanitarian aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) and other international partners to implement Early Warning Systems (EWS) in these countries. Called the Community Alert Project (CAP), the initiative uses multiple, simultaneous alerting systems to reach as much of the population as possible, as quickly as possible. Among the modes of alerting community members are mass emails, smartphone apps, devices that interrupt radio and television programming and warning sirens.

Since the speed at which information is transmitted can mean life or death in disaster scenarios, CAP is aimed at both increasing and expediting the flow of information from official alerting authorities to at-risk populations.

On a policy level, draft EWS protocols and agreements were prepared for each country, initiating the process of creating a legal framework and structure for the operation of the EWS. Subsequent to this, country representatives—including members of the Red Cross and emergency services—were trained in the use and maintenance of the system itself.

To ensure that the communities (who depend on the system most) were sufficiently informed, an awareness-raising campaign was launched, with educational, promotional and public awareness initiatives held throughout the three countries. Over 40,000 people benefited.

As a complement to the system, and to ensure quality control, countries have begun the process of preliminary testing with communities and authorities. In Dominica, “Exercise DomWave 14”, a simulation exercise, was held to test the public alerting mechanism in the event of a tsunami. It allowed the Office of Disaster Management to assess the efficacy of its tsunami communication protocols and community response activities.

“We were really impressed with the way you came up from the schools to the safe point” Alison Brome, the Interim Director of the Caribbean Tsunami Information Centre (CTIC), told the participants. “That is what we want you to do…tsunamis can move very quickly and you always have to be on alert.”

Public appreciation of the enhanced system is strong, and in Dominica schools have expressed interest in developing their own complementary emergency plans. Links between communities and national disaster offices have been revived, and a number of businesses have decided to integrate disaster preparedness into their operations.

While the early warning system has thankfully remained untested by a real disaster, UNDP continues to work with authorities and communities across the region to ensure that early warning and preparedness capacities of countries have been enhanced. This is a continuation of a renewed focus on Early Warning in the Caribbean, initiated with the Regional Risk Reduction Initiative (R3I) then continued through with the Enhancing Resilience to Reduce Vulnerability in the Caribbean initiative. 

In the lead up to The Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, set for Sendai, Japan in March, UNDP is reflecting on a decade of support to help countries achieve the goals of the Hyogo Framework for Action. For more country case studies such as this, and to access other information on UNDP's support to HFA2, please visit our event page: UNDP.org/WCDRR

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