AS you know, we have been placed on Storm Warning as Tropical Storm Tomas nears Jamaica. The Met Office has advised that we should expect to experience storm conditions in sections of the island within the next few hours.
We have been tracking this system for the past week as it strengthened, weakened, strengthened again and made its way across the Caribbean. It did considerable damage in the eastern Caribbean, especially in St Lucia where 14 persons lost their lives. Currently a tropical storm, Tomas is expected to pass as close as 35 miles off the eastern end of the island later tonight.
We are thankful that, from all appearances, we will be spared a direct hit by the storm as it has made a sharp turn to the north. Sadly, though, this will take it across the western section of Haiti, the eastern section of Cuba and toward the Turks and Caicos islands. We are particularly concerned for the people of Haiti who have already suffered so much from the earthquake in January, the floods in March and October and the recent outbreak of cholera.
Even though we will escape a direct hit, Jamaica is still expected to feel the effects of the storm with heavy rains and the possibility of strong winds especially in the eastern sections of the island.
On Monday when it appeared that Tomas was on a direct track to Jamaica with the possibility of becoming a Category 3 hurricane, I ordered that all disaster management systems be placed on full alert and all mitigation and preparedness plans be put in high gear. Even though the threat level to Jamaica is much less than we had previously feared, we cannot afford to let down our guard.
The heavy rains resulting from Tropical Storm Nicole over the last few weeks have left the earth heavily saturated, the underground water table at a high level and some communities still under several feet of water. This means that with more heavy rains to come, flooding in many areas is almost inevitable. Let us remember, too, that when Nicole came upon us it was not yet a tropical storm, only a depression, and yet look how many lives we lost and how much damage it did! We must take nothing for granted. It is better to be safe than sorry.
Since Monday, ODPEM has been issuing public advisories urging the public to prepare themselves and take all possible precautions to protect themselves against the likely effects of the storm. They were urged to secure their roofs as best as possible using hurricane straps, store water and bleach to treat water, secure flashlights and other emergency lighting as well as canned and other ready-to-eat food. They were urged to prune trees that pose a danger to homes and power lines and the NSWMA has had crews on the road assisting in this regard. We have issued warnings not to venture into deep or treacherous waters which, sometimes, are far more dangerous than they seem.
The media and the telecommunications providers have provided valuable assistance to us in getting these messages out and I thank them for their support. All these precautions should still be observed particularly by those in the eastern parishes.
All emergency services and disaster management agencies are fully mobilised. Parish Disaster Committees are up and running and all government agencies have been instructed to activate their national disaster plans. All public schools in Kingston and St Andrew, St Thomas, Portland and St Mary have been ordered closed for tomorrow.
Shelter management arrangements have been activated across the island with particular emphasis on the eastern parishes and areas still under water from the effects of Nicole. Relief supplies have been pre-positioned in the areas most likely to be affected to allow for speedy delivery if it becomes necessary. Persons living in unsafe homes, flood-prone areas or in areas that are vulnerable to erosion must be prepared to go to the nearest shelter at the first sign of danger. Mass evacuation plans are in place for coastal areas that could experience storm surges as well as communities close to volatile rivers.
The National Emergency Operations Centre at ODPEM is fully operational. So, too, is the Medical Emergency Operations Centre based at the Bustamante Children’s Hospital and medical emergency operations centres have been activated in all parishes. Our hospitals and other public health facilities have geared themselves to respond to any eventuality. The JPSCo and the NWC are in full emergency mode to protect their systems as far as possible and to respond to disruptions that may occur as quickly as possible.
I wish to commend the staff of ODPEM, Ministry of Health, the emergency services – Fire Services, Police, JDF – the NSWMA, Local Authorities, essential services providers and the many voluntary agencies for their pro-activeness, the level of coordination that has taken place and the high level of preparedness that has been achieved. I returned to the island earlier today and was immediately briefed on our state of readiness. The various teams have done a good job so far and all Jamaica can be proud of them. They will remain on full alert throughout tonight and beyond in order to be able to respond to any and all eventualities.
We cannot control the storm, the path it takes or the fury it unleashes but we can do much to protect ourselves, avoid the loss of lives and minimise damage to our property. In the remaining hours before Tomas passes, let us do everything that we can to prepare and protect ourselves. We must pay special attention to our children and the sick and the elderly who are least able to take care of themselves. I encourage all households especially in the eastern sections of the island to ensure that someone is awake at all times throughout the night – take turns in sleeping – so that the family can be alerted to any imminent danger. Expectant mothers who are nearing the time of delivery should try to move closer to the nearest hospital and should call the emergency numbers in the event of distress.
I urge everyone to be on alert but to remain calm as the storm passes near us. We pray for God’s mercy and protection on all the people of Jamaica as well as our brothers and sisters in Haiti, Cuba and the Turks and Caicos.