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An evacuation plan for Port-of-Spain
Posted: Saturday, July 16, 2005

We Are A Disciplined People

By Linda E. Edwards

All major cities have them, capital cities have them; families ought to have them in case of fire or other emergencies. Schools desperately need to have them drilled into the heads of students and practiced at regular intervals. The military and other national defense systems need to have them drilled into their consciousness so that they could be implemented at a moment's notice. I am talking of an emergency evacuation plan.

We saw an evacuation plan, and emergency preparedness, at work in London last Thursday when a series of bombs went off, sending people scurrying. There were no reports of further injuries or deaths caused by panicking people. That stiff upper lip must count for something. I watched on television as emergency tents were erected on sidewalks, face masks issued to burn victims, and people around rallied to the aid of the injured. Some of this also happened in Port-of-Spain on Monday, 11th, but by Wednesday, when the PM apparently called for the evacuation of the city, people were criticizing the decision; and the logjam of people wanting to get home before the storm.

Dispassionately, my mind goes back to 1963 when the country was under hurricane threat. The notice came late, but people immediately went home. I decided Arima was too far to go by taxi, so I spent the night in Belmont. There were no phones to tell my parents where I was, but I presumed they would rely on the good sense of their young adult daughter. They focused on removing the lower branches of the mango and cashew trees that surrounded our home, in order to be safe from falling branches.

In 1984 when Pope John Paul 11 came to visit, people were also sent home early to avoid traffic congestion in Port-of-Spain due to the many streets closed for security reasons and so on. This was a decision that was communicated on the day of his arrival, not before.

On Wednesday, however, when such an order as issued by the Prime Minister, the decision was criticized in the media, and is still being criticized as I write. Perhaps the hurricane warning came too early after Monday's evacuation. Perhaps we are a jittery people, unnerved by Monday's blast, and so, we prefer to panic on our own, rather than have a panicked response to Mr. Manning's request to evacuate.

I think of the corner of South Quay where I had stood in the rain a week before, waiting for transport to Diego. Some days, I had taken a route taxi all to myself, some days I had ridden with others requesting a "special drop". Today, there seemed not much choice. Rain ruined everything. People were walking further towards Diego to meet the oncoming transport, and all were full when they got to my corner. I joined the walkers, and took a PH home. Everyone else was doing the same. Of the ten cars that picked up passengers before I got into one, not one was an official taxi.

Now, supposing, in such a situation of rain, clogged traffic, and insufficient transportation at the best of times, an evacuation order, a mandatory order, was issued. What would the people do?
In a best case scenario, the authorities would get on radio and television and issue the order. There would be orderly lines of people leaving the city. Busses would be lined up nose to tail to take people out. Women would not shop for their favorite maxi with the loud music, but would take the next car in line, the roads would not be clogged with debris from recent rains nor with people dodging cars to get there ahead of others. There would be no pushing from a tough looking guy who opens the outside, street-side door while you are trying to get in from the curbside, and he will not push you back to make room for his partner. Women carrying small children would be allowed to go to the head of the line, motherhood being sacred and all that. All of the people needing to take transport, that is, those without private cars, would be allowed an hour and a half start before the ones with private cars, and the honor system would demand that we all follow the rules to keep the traffic flowing.

No cars would be allowed to enter Port-of-Spain's inner area, unless they are plying for hire. So, housewives, if there are any such people left, would not go into the city to pick up husbands. They would have to take taxi, or car-pool with friends.

After all "travelers" are evacuated, those going to the furthest points, Sangre Grande, Penal, Pt. Fortin, would be evacuated next. And our discipline would allow those closer to wait on the order to move. Then those going to Arouca, St Joseph, Couva and so on would evacuate. Finally, San Juan, Chaguanas and Diego could go, along with Maraval and St. Anns.

The people would be patient, as emergency evacuation routes are designated, so that streets like Tragarete Road, Mucurapo Road, Wrightson Road, and the Eastern Main Road become one way, out of the city only, in order to get the people out.

Our disciplined and respectful people would allow the emergency management teams to do their jobs without heckling; so that at City Gate, the designation of buses could be changed based on immediate need. These buses will take people to major decanting centers like high schools in the areas, shopping malls and large churches, which would all be roped into the evacuation plan, by previous notice and public posting. Families would know that their relatives would be sent to this place or that based on where in the city they were evacuated from. Evacuation to major decanting centers would allow the speedy return of the buses to the city to take others out, who are patiently waiting in line for their turn. If the buses from the city ran to Chaguanas, Tunapuna and so on, dropped off masses of people, and returned, one stop only, at the decanting center; other buses could pick them up for the onward journey instead of every bus coming into the city, and increasing congestion. Everybody living within four miles of the city would walk home, thus freeing up route taxis that go to Belmont, St. James and so on, to be designated for further travel.

In a short while, our orderly and disciplined people would co-operate with the authorities in emptying the city. There will be no panic. We would know the plan and work the plan. This is my dream.

Reality is another matter altogether. Here are some possible scenarios.

Radio commentator: Who is Manning to tell me when I could leave the city? What do they mean by dedicated radio time. Come on callers, tell me, should they take my radio time to talk about emergencies? I find he farse and out of place!

Passenger: I ent going to no damn decanting center. I living over he road dey. You want to live a good life? Drop me home yuh hear?

Taxi-driver: Look officer, I does do the Belmont route, what you telling me bout Tunapuna. I ent going dey! Yuh crazy or what?

Pedestrian (potential, with police officer attempting to direct) Me, walk to St. James in my good heels? Dat sidewalk too rough. It does scrape up you shoes. I waiting right here. Taxi bound to come. I ent moving, go ahead, arrest me, all you too corrupt anyway. I bet if it was you girlfren she wouldn't have to walk.

Officer worker detained at desk: They blasted farse and out of place to say I cyar go to mi car and go home right now. Who dey think dey talking to. My uncle is

Businessman asked to send home low level clerical staff first: Look, you see this government, they anti business. How ah goin to make some last minute sales if my salesgirls done gone home. Who is the Prime Minister to say who I should send home first? My girls are not his daughters or his godchildren. I should go first, and let them shut up the shop. I have three small children at home.

Businessman living at Mt. Hololo: I going to mi SUV you hear? Let some policeman try to stop me. This is a V8 engine ah driving. Four wheel drive too, and ah have a full tank.

The evacuation plan failed on the basis of the personal egos of this highly disciplined society, whose self discipline applies only to how selfish each could be in a national crisis.

Later, after the storm surge put two feet of water at City Gate, and the sea reached Independence Square, and panicked people had hurt themselves rushing forward, and a few children were crushed under the wheels of busses, there was much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

They had watched New York evacuate in the aftermath of a post 9/11 power failure that affected both north eastern USA and southeastern Canada. People who had no idea where to go above ground, found their way home in total darkness. They had watched London handle a terrorist attack and execute a well disciplined plan, but they had thought that was "entertainment" beamed from abroad.

In the end, they blamed the party in power for not planning ahead. Everyone, except a few thinkers, seemed to think that planning and executing an emergency plan is something "government" does, and the role of the people is to not co-operate, while grumbling loudly.

It was another failure of the education system, which we mistakenly think applies to school children only.

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