The disaster that wasn't

‘We plan, God laughs’ – Yiddish proverb

It always smacks of hubris to talk about how well we did in the face of adversity. There’s a danger that success might breed complacence. And complacence always leads to failure.

So when we congratulate ourselves for the remarkably drama-free progress of the Ambae evacuation, we need to do so with a healthy measure of humility.

But when all is said and done, the people of Vanuatu have every right to be proud. We moved 4% of our national population away from danger, we sheltered them, we fed and cared for them. And then, marking the occasion with tearful goodbyes, sent them on their way back home.

A vanishingly few deaths can be attributed to the hardship of being uprooted from the land, and none of them to negligence or an inadequate standard of care.

Despite gripes and grumbling, the situation on the ground was orderly, caring, drama-free and moderately efficient, given the circumstances. However uncomfortable it may have been for the people of Ambae forced to leave their homes, most everyone agrees that it could have been much worse.

According to some, it was much worse back in 2004, when the mass evacuation within the island’s borders was charitably described as shambolic.

The effort, needless to say, was hardly perfect. There was a great deal of uncertainty about where, when and how people would be transported. And that uncertainty persisted for some even after they were embarked and under way.

But some complaints are unwarranted. Some prominent people have suggested that the instruments watching the volcano were not good enough to predict its behaviour accurately. Others have suggested that Vanuatu doesn’t have the right skills and expertise to interpret the data they do get.

Both those accusations are baseless.

The sensing stations installed on all of Vanuatu’s active volcanos offer real-time monitoring of seismic activity—the underground rumbling and shaking that often precede or accompany volcanic activity. They test for toxic gas levels. And they also incorporate the Mark I Eyeball: they point a camera at the darn thing and allow anyone with eyes to see what’s happening.

The data from this equipment is shared in real time with a global network of volcanologists and other earth science experts. Vanuatu is a poster child in the volcano world, offering opportunities to study numerous active volcanos easily, and only a few hours of flying time apart.

And if that’s not good enough, the sensor data is posted live on the VMGD website for everyone to see. It became a must-visit page for us to verify and vet comments and concerns that we received during the crisis.

To suggest that our volcanos lack scrutiny is silly.

And claims that the government got bad advice from its experts, or that the evacuation was unnecessary or ill-timed, are also without merit.

It’s easy to second-guess tough decisions like this. But Charlot Salwai’s comments on the day the decision to evacuate was announced demonstrated the wisdom and concern that went into it. We value human life above all other concerns, he said.

The Precautionary Principle has illuminated public affairs since the environmental movement brought it to prominence in the late 1990s. The first scientific gathering to formally endorse it expressed it this way:

“When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

In other words, sometimes waiting until you’re certain can be the wrong thing to do. It’s true for climate change, it’s true for cyclones, and it’s even truer—if that’s possible—for volcanos. By the time you know an eruption is certain, it may be too late to act.

Although the evacuation and support effort can confidently be called a success, there are still valuable lessons to be learned.

First and foremost: The Prime Minister’s admission that we haven’t done enough to plan for volcano-related emergencies. It’s a good bet that all of our national contingency plans would benefit from greater detail, from occasional rehearsal, and from periodic review.

ProMedical Rescue’s recent Rotary-funded inter-agency training and workshop reaped instant rewards, improving cooperation on the ground, and building a better sense of how to divvy up the roles and responsibilities when trouble comes. Even before the training was complete, two road crashes gave first responders the opportunity to put their newly acquired skills to the test.

By all accounts it was a smashing success.

Lesson: Practice and preparation save lives.

Secondly, understanding the scope of the emergency is not always as obvious as it should be. When the government declared a state of emergency on the island of Ambae, they were able to expedite a number of processes, moving people, materials and equipment into place to support Ambaeans in evacuation centres across the island.

But the moment they embarked for nearby islands, those processes bogged down.

A small but important step in the emergency response protocol was overlooked: Because the state of emergency applied only to the island of Ambae, things bogged down once people moved to neighbouring islands.

Lesson: The state of emergency extends to where the affected population is, not just the disaster-affected areas.

Thirdly, it is abundantly clear that the government and authorities still have not learned to put money where their mouth is.

Communications are essential to disaster response. And yet, it was the first thing to suffer when the state of emergency was declared. Official communications were few and far between, and as the NDMO and the Geohazards Unit became overtaxed with work, their communications became the first thing to suffer. This caused frustration and concern among the public, and a fair amount of misunderstanding too. Happily, nobody began spreading outright false information.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Local media are ready, willing and able to assist, but they need designated contacts who are available at all times. They need space in the tents, on the ships and on the planes. They don’t have to ride for free, but some accommodation needs to be made.

One of the more unfortunate moments in the evacuation effort happened when an NDMO staffer accused a Daily Post reporter, who had travelled to Ambae on a day off, and using his own funds, of profiting from other’s misfortune. This jaded view of the media’s role is cynical, and it’s wrong.

We all have a public service responsibility, and we take it no less seriously than anyone else.

Lesson: The public has a right to know what’s going on, and the government has a responsibility to help get the message out, no matter what the message is.

But the biggest lesson of all is this:

The Ambae evacuation should go down into the annals of disaster response as the best possible kind of disaster: the kind that isn’t.

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