Are you ready for a natural disaster? | Contact Magazine

Have you ever wondered what would happen in Trinidad and Tobago in the event of a large earthquake, a tsunami, or a major hurricane? Would you and your staff know what to do? Would your business survive? Are you fully insured, or just hoping it will never happen?

by Ravindranath Goswami, President, REACT Trinidad and Tobago Council

Published in CONTACT Magazine

Disaster preparedness is a hot topic during and after events such as fires, tropical storms, flooding, and earthquakes. In quieter times, the need to plan and invest in solutions tends to become less urgent. But a real national conversation is needed around the concept of disaster risk reduction. In the business world, we must also consider business continuity management (BCM).


A hazard is a source of potential damage, a threat. Hazards can be broadly classified into two categories – natural and anthropogenic (i.e. related to human behaviour and activity).

Volcanic activityFamine

Whether a hazard leads to a disaster is largely dependent on vulnerability, risk, mitigation measures, and overall resilience.

VulnerabilityA weakness in a system that increases susceptibility to impacts
IncidentAn unplanned occurrence that requires a response
DisasterAn occurrence, often sudden, that causes great damage or loss of life
MitigationProactively minimising the impact and loss, and facilitating recovery from an incident
ResilienceAbility to adapt to or recover from hazards, achieved by planning ahead
RiskThe probability of something failing (likelihood) times the consequence of it happening (impact, damage or loss)

Risk and vulnerability

According to the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), between 1990 and 2008 the Caribbean experienced 165 natural disasters, with total costs estimated at US$136 billion, of which half was direct economic impact.

Trinidad and Tobago’s main areas of disaster risk in the period 1990-2014, from an economic standpoint, were seismic and hydrometeorological, according to UNISDR (the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction). Fires accounted for the highest incidence of mortality.

In 2014, a vulnerability assessment published by the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) in Trinidad and Tobago further detailed the actual and potential hazards to which the country is exposed.

The perennial risk of flooding and landslides is strongest in specific areas (see below).

The Pacific Disaster Centre (PDC) is currently engaged in a collaborative project assisting Trinidad and Tobago to complete a National Disaster Preparedness Baseline Assessment (NDPBA).

Business risk

The World Economic Forum, in enumerating the “Top Ten” general risks for doing business (see table below), does not specifically include natural disasters. But, given the prevalence of ICT, special attention must be paid to the risks posed by cyber-security attacks (listed as #5)

Global top ten risks for doing business
1.     Unemployment or underemployment
2.     Failure of national governance
3.     Energy price shock
4.     Fiscal crises
5.     Cyber-attacks
6.     Profound social instability
7.     Failure of financial mechanism or institution
8.     Failure of critical infrastructure
9.     Failure of regional and global governance
10.   Terrorist attacks
Source: World Economic Forum, 2018

Disaster impacts

Disasters affect both business interests and consumers in various ways.

Consumer impactsBusiness impacts
Health issues, disease, poor sanitation, loss of lifeNegative impacts on safety and security of employees and their ability to return to work
Loss of propertyPhysical assets damaged, resulting in interruption of production and facilities
Damaged records and items of sentimental valueLoss of records
Accessibility of goods and servicesDelay in deliveries to customers
Increase in insurance ratesSupply chain disruptions
Family conflictCommunications channels constrained
Deferred life objectivesDelay in achieving strategic objectives.  Some never recover
Reduced income and increased cost of livingIncreased costs and reduction in profit

National disaster management authorities

The agency responsible for disaster response and risk management at the national level is the ODPM.

The ODPM is a centralised organisation that works closely with the Disaster Management Units (DMUs) of all the municipal corporations and the Tobago Emergency Management Agency (TEMA). The DMUs report to the CEOs of their respective corporations, with a dotted line to the Ministry of Rural Development and Local Government (MRD&LG).

ODPM has access to a pool of resources, and within the National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC) leverages the supporting and responding agencies via the Emergency Support Functions.

Surveying the estimated human capital complement of the organisations shown below, reveals something of a resource constraint, given their responsibilities, 24×7 activation, population densities, and wide geographical coverage.

Estimated human resource requirements: Trinidad & Tobago emergency organisations

Disaster management agenciesODPMTEMA + Professional CERTsMRD &LGMUNICIPAL DMUs
Current staffingN/A485652
Additional neededN/A0028

Source: Author, April 2019

TEMA is well organised and configured for rapid response, partly achieved using professional CERTs (Community Emergency Response Teams), a programme that trains volunteers in aspects of disaster preparedness and response.

In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, these volunteers are already on scene, rendering assistance, clearing fallen trees, putting out fires, providing first aid, and undertaking light search and rescue. Official responder agencies may be overwhelmed and take some time to get to affected areas, especially if they are remote.

In TEMA’s case, the CERTs are staffers. In Trinidad, there are approximately 1,000 trained CERT volunteers attached to DMUs. There is a very ambitious desire to have at least 10% of the population trained in CERT. There is a common view that each of the DMUs would need an additional two field officers to cope with the onerous responsibilities.

A National Response Framework (NRF) facilitates co-ordination between state agencies and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) for a range of activities such as early warning, assessment, emergency operations and relief.

Trinidad and Tobago is also part of CDEMA, the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, a regional organisation comprising 18 states, with a Comprehensive Disaster Management (CDM) strategy. The Incident Command System (ICS) used by CDEMA is a standardised approach to the command, control and coordination of emergency response from multiple agencies across the region.

It is common to hear at press briefings that we are well prepared to handle disaster situations, despite the views often expressed by citizens suggesting the opposite. The reason for the divergence could well be a combination of factors: a positive public relations posture, technocratic insider knowledge, different perspectives, and divergent expectations. After-action reviews by the agencies do highlight gaps to be addressed and encourage a process of continual improvement.

Greenvale 2018

The costs associated with the flooding which took place at Greenvale in October 2018 are still being calculated. Relevant agencies are making steady progress in restoring the community. Some estimates suggest that costs may approach TT$250 million. While yeoman service was rendered by responder agencies, questions have arisen regarding response times, and also about planning and development issues which may have exacerbated the disaster.

Heavy rain caused major losses and devastation in south Trinidad. Photo courtesy The Ministry Of Works And Transport of Trinidad and Tobago

The volunteer factor

The role of volunteers should not be overlooked. Many NGOs, Faith-based Organisations and Community-based Organisations are involved in the various aspects of disaster preparedness and response. Due to size and complexity, no territory would be able to manage a disaster without the involvement of “good Samaritans”.

Radio Emergency Associated Communications Teams (REACT) is an international voluntary organisation, geared toward reliable and resilient communication. Locally, REACT works closely with emergency and disaster management agencies and first responders and is written into the emergency response plans of some businesses in T&T.

The Emergency Management Association of T&T (EMATT) is a newly-formed NGO that promotes the strengthening of a disaster risk reduction culture.

Businesses should pay attention to the work of these entities and consider engaging with and supporting their efforts.

Business continuity

Business continuity planning is the commercial equivalent of public sector disaster preparedness and management. It involves planning for operations during a crisis or disaster by ensuring that essential functioning can continue or quickly resume after the incident. Full resumption as quickly as possible is an objective of the process, and may require external recovery services. Given the critical nature of data, a comprehensive policy-driven IT Disaster Recovery Plan (DRP) is essential.


Some of the incidents which Trinidad and Tobago has experienced – or narrowly missed – since 1963.

1963Hurricane Flora
1974Tropical Storm Alma
19886.2 earthquake
1990Tropical Storm Arthur
 Tropical Storm Fran
1993Tropical Storm Bret
19976.1 earthquake
2000Tropical Storm Joyce
2004Hurricane Ivan
2005Hurricane Emily
20065.8 earthquake
2007Hurricane Felix
2011Landslides and flooding
2012Landslides and flooding
20136.4 earthquake
2017Tropical Storm Bret
20186.9 earthquake

The way forward

If a disaster plan is not already in place for you and your business, here are some suggestions.

  1. Establish a steering committee.
  2. Develop a Business Continuity Programme (BCP), internally or by employing consultants, referencing standards such as ISO 22301. Ensure alignment with business strategy, and have stakeholder consultations. Conduct a risk and vulnerability assessment, a business impact analysis, and develop emergency response procedures and disaster recovery plans.
  3. Test and update the plan.
  4. Review and improve infrastructure and policies.
  5. Carefully consider insurance. Ensure it covers the type of damage you may encounter and provides enough coverage to return your business to operation. Guardian Group and Sagicor among others offer comprehensive insurance packages.
  6. Train employees on the BCP and ICS.
  7. Review performance indicators and maintain focus.
  8. Engage in community discussions and consider mutual-aid schemes.

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