Cultivating A Culture of Preparedness


In many ways, the Virgin Islands has a culture of preparedness. Mostly due to our shared memories of surviving the impacts of 2017, or earlier impacts like Hurricane Hugo in 1989 or Donna in 1960. Most of us living here now remember very clearly where we were, what we lost, and how we felt during and immediately after Hurricane Irma. The devastation of that storm in particular, means that even now, some in our community are still repairing homes, rebuilding businesses and replenishing savings.

Research over the years in places like India, the United States and Canada, suggests that having been exposed to a disaster in the past, tends to make communities more likely to take steps to prepare for a potential impact in the future.

Another sign I see that we are living in a culture of preparedness is that our knowledge of how to be ready is sophisticated. Persons who I come across in my daily life, whether they are colleagues in the public service or others in the community, ask questions that demonstrate a detailed understanding of different aspects of preparedness, especially when it comes to storms. We have moved past household-level basics like food, water and spare batteries. In my experience, matters like bulky waste disposal, drainage challenges, backup communications and insurance coverage are much more common question topics.

Outside my circle, there are other signs that we are in a culture of preparedness. For example, when the Department of Disaster Management conducted our most recent KAP (knowledge, attitudes and practices) survey, approximately 350 BVI residents shared their thoughts on various aspects of preparedness. More than half said that they prepare for storms and hurricanes throughout the year. Even more impressive, more than 90 percent of respondents said they agreed with the statement “everyone has a role to play when it comes to disaster preparedness.” As an emergency manager, this is exactly what you hope to hear from your community.

In the business community, I can see persons adopting measures like continuity plans and workplace preparedness training. In our non-governmental agencies, I can see our people making connections between conservation and disaster resilience. Across all levels of our educational system, I can see that students know what the most common hazards are and they know the most important steps they can take to be safe before, during and after an emergency.

And yet, I worry that what I see is not enough.

What if we know that we should have an emergency plan, but we have not yet sat together as a family to make one?

What if we have a mental list of steps to take to safeguard our property, but we have not made the time to put those steps into action?

What if we do indeed have a comprehensive emergency plan, but it has never been practiced?

What if we have assembled a kit of emergency supplies that suits our family or household, but we’ve stored it away for so long that the food and medicine inside are past their date?

In other words, I worry that as a Territory, we have not taken steps to put our knowledge into action. The reality is that if a disaster does strike, far too many of us will lose our lives, homes or livelihoods because we did not do what we should have while we had the chance.

While it may take effort, bridging the gap between knowledge and action is possible, with commitment. I urge each and every one of us in this Territory to make a commitment now to take a few simple steps to help their families and businesses face any storms that may arrive this season.

  1. Know your risk: Think of 2017, and what you wish you would have done then. If you are in a different location, speak to your neighbors and learn what helped them. What would they do differently to prepare?
  2. Make a plan: Use what you learnt to make a plan that fits your household, including any pets or vulnerable family members. Ensure that each person in the home understands the plan and their role. Once everyone understands the plan, practice it together so that you will know if it needs to be adjusted before an emergency strikes.
  3. Assemble supplies: Gather a home emergency kit with enough essential water, medicine and non-perishable food for each member of your household for at least three days, preferably a week. Also include in your emergency kit a radio, light source, spare batteries, and the supplies you will need to prepare and serve your food. Don’t forget to include the supplies to help your household bathe and toilet without power. A go-bag that can be carried by each member of the household in case you need to evacuate is also a good idea.
  4. Finally, support your community. Connect with persons in your neighborhood, your church, or your extended family network. If you have the means or the skills, assist someone who can use help when it comes to the above steps. Likewise, if you need help, this is the time to set aside pride and ask.

In life, there are no guarantees. Even taking all the above steps cannot completely prevent a bad outcome if an emergency arises. However, knowing that we have done all we can, while we can, will help to ensure that should the worst happen, we will not have to suffer the additional burden of regret over what more could have been done.

Jasen Penn BSc (Hons), EDM, MCPM, AEMDirector
Department of Disaster Management
Government of the Virgin Islands