By Gavin Macgregor-Skinner with Joy Arnell, Stuyvesant Lewis-Gumbs, Margje Troost, Fenna Arnell, Priyanka Thirumur, Louis Jeffry, and Tyler Radford

Critical knowledge gaps and challenges in channeling communications from individuals and communities to government and from government to individuals and communities seriously hinder efforts for building disaster resilience and responding to disasters at all levels. Information deficiency is most serious at our local level, especially in terms of spatial information on risk, resources, capacities of communities, and means for bidirectional risk communication. We live and work on islands where broadly communicating risk information to the community and specific information to highly vulnerable populations in a way that is meaningful to them and fit for their purposes is very challenging.

The “view from above” provided satellites, aircraft, and UAVs, is a crucial resource needed in any phase of disaster risk management. Source: Tyler Radford (Open Street Map)

Our personal experiences dealing with disasters in the Caribbean have identified the need to:

Build a Culture of Preparedness where every segment of our society, from individual to government, industry to philanthropy, must be encouraged and empowered with the information it needs to prepare for the inevitable impacts of future disasters.

Ready our Islands for Catastrophic Disasters by strengthening working relationships with partners across all levels of government within and between island nations and access new sources of scalable capabilities to quickly meet the needs of overwhelming incidents and take a multi-hazard approach and be prepared for any disaster, be it as a result of a natural hazard or an anthropogenic hazard, or an act of terrorism.

Reduce the Complexity of Decision-Making and continue to be responsible stewards of the resources we are entrusted to administer. We must also do everything that we can to leverage data to drive decision-making, and reduce the administrative and financial and bureaucratic burdens that impede impacted individuals and communities from quickly receiving the assistance they need.

On St. Maarten, as we moved from immediate response and recovery to long term recovery, we reflected on the lessons identified from September 6, 2017, when Category 5 Hurricane Irma slammed into the island. In doing so, we contemplated not only how to increase our readiness for catastrophic disasters, but also how best to reduce impacts from future disasters. We realized that we needed to shift the way we think about disasters, and how we communicate, so that we can be better prepared in the future.

But to truly foster a culture of preparedness we must go beyond our Government programs. We are engaging all stakeholders—including Government, nongovernmental organizations, the private sector and citizens—to join as partners to combine and streamline activities in this effort.

So how do we join together to meet this goal? We will begin with four areas where we believe we can drive change.

First, we need to acknowledge that during a disaster, individuals in the impacted communities are the first responders. We need to empower and prepare individuals with lifesaving skills to help speed response and recovery efforts.

Second, we need to reduce the financial burden of disasters to individuals, businesses, and governments by identifying ways to better understand risk and reduce risk. Communities can play a key role in helping generate data to identify and understand risk.

Third, we need to build more resilient communities to reduce risks to people and property.

Fourth, we need to assist communities with their continuity planning to ensure that essential government services function following a disaster. This also includes issuing emergency alerts and notifications and bidirectional risk communication to ensure citizens are informed and governments are informed of what’s happening at the local level, and are taking protective actions, before and during disasters.

In our session we will discuss how to promote new collaborations and sharing of science, evidence and technology solutions within and between island states. We will be inclusive, participatory and ensure transparent dialogue ensues in responding to the challenges on ways to:

1. Build Government-Community Collaboratives to Better Understand Risk

In many locations, there are serious gaps in up-to-date, hyper-local data on a community’s infrastructure, basic services, assets, and vulnerabilities. Individuals and community organizations are a valuable, yet underutilized source of this information. Collaborative data generation and mapping projects using participatory mapping techniques and OpenStreetMap are helping unite government agencies and community data generators in filling this gap, leading to better understanding risk.

What information might communities have on the places they live which is not available to governments? Do you have a process for systematically gathering this information through community mapping? Social media? Open data projects? Other sources?

2. Develop Key Messages in Advance

Many key messages can be written before disaster strikes so they can be quickly disseminated before an event, during the response, and in the recovery stages. In disaster planning this is known as a phased approach and it can save valuable time when in the midst of a crisis response. Do you have a key message document to help you quickly create and adapt communication products for your audiences?

3. Identify New Communication Channels

Before a disaster, communities can contribute local knowledge on assets and vulnerabilities that help governments better assess risk and develop contingency plans. After a disaster, when all primary communication systems and technology fail, we must think creatively and adapt to the crisis by identifying new communication channels.

What systems do governments and communities use to share information on risk and preparedness before a disaster?

What happened when your communications systems failed or were disrupted?

Can people go “back to basics”?

What alternate communication channels have you used? – SMS Text messaging; social media; outdoor speakers to run public service announcements; radio announcements; mass producing printed materials; signs and billboards; relaying messages by word of mouth.

4. Create Culturally Appropriate Materials

Cultural norms influence how people behave, so culture has important implications for emergency communication. Our island societies are multicultural and multilingual, and for St. Martin/St. Maarten more than 100 nationalities officially reside with a population of about 77,000, and so it’s important to use widely understood terminology to provide clear and localized language messages, particularly for audiences with low literacy.

5. Partner Up!

How did we collaborate to determine our number one priority, which was reaching the most vulnerable communities, including those that had chronic medical conditions, required daily medications, needed a source of electricity, were unable to access transport, families with young children, or those with no access to clean water or food?

How can Island Nations adopt and use technology with limited access to expert knowledge to determine which technology would be most applicable and identify resources to educate and train locals?

6. Boots on the Ground

After the 2017 hurricane, talking with people face-to-face gave us a better understanding of the reality’s survivors were facing and helped identify public health information gaps in our materials, so we could make adjustments.

How can we work with partners and disseminate appropriate, accurate, and timely information to the public? What are ways to engage non-government organizations, community groups, volunteers, and individuals to ensure their actions are coordinated and effective? What platforms do we have or need to ensure what we learned is captured and shared?

Presenters are associated with the islands of Sint Maarten/Saint Martin, Bonaire, Aruba, Curacao, Saba, Sint Eustatius, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint Barthelemy.

Session: Challenges in Developing Bi-Directional Community Risk Communication: Sharing Science, Evidence and Technology Solutions