Image Credits: Alice Forsyth

Disaster Management Volunteering in Jamaica

Image Credits: Alice Forsyth
Image Credits: Alice Forsyth

In June 2017, I volunteered to take part in a Disaster Management Project in Jamaica for one month, coordinated by the non-profit organisation, ProjectsAbroad. During my placement, I lived with a Jamaican host family, just outside the town of Mandeville. As part of my project, I worked with the Manchester Parish Council to update emergency shelter lists for the area and organise shelter manager training days, as well as creating a tailored Disaster Management Plan for an underprivileged primary school. This was a very interesting opportunity, and the experience I had was absolutely amazing and insightful.

Since I arrived at the beginning of Jamaica’s hurricane season, I was assigned to complete several tasks to aid the community’s preparation for potential upcoming hazards. For my first task, I worked with the Manchester Municipal Council to update the emergency shelter list for the Manchester Parish. The list held the names of around seventy schools, churches and community centres that would be used as emergency shelters for anyone who needs them in any natural disaster. Jamaica faces the possibility of destruction and loss of life due to potential hurricanes, earthquakes, floods or mass fires. These shelters would be activated if anyone in the community suffered from one of these disasters, to provide short-term care for these people who had suffered damage to their own homes.

Primarily, I was asked to update the names and telephone numbers of shelter managers assigned to each shelter, and to invite them to upcoming training days. Although interesting and very important, this task quickly turned quite tedious because the list had not been updated since 2012. This meant that the majority of people I phoned no longer had an interest in being a shelter manager, or I simply had the wrong number as that person’s telephone number had changed during the time. To get the missing information I then phoned the schools that were listed as shelters, yet many school principals had no idea who the managers were and I could not make any more progress.

Overall, there were around 70 shelters in the Manchester Parish, the majority with two shelter managers each. With this, there should have been around 140 shelter managers willing and wanting to come to the training days. However, only around 25 people came on the days.

The training days were very interesting and informative. An official employee of the Jamaican ODPEM led the two-day workshop, in which she ran many simulation exercises and scenarios to teach the shelter managers what to do in certain situations. Everyone that attended the training days actively engaged in the workshop, and I found it very rewarding to recognise that I had helped this event happen, no matter how frustrating the process was.

I think the most important reason why the turnout to the shelter manager training days was comparatively low, was merely because the list of names and numbers had not been updated in five years. All the shelter managers are volunteers from the community and I got the sense that a majority of the people I called did not have the motivation to go to the training because they did not see it as important or a priority in their lives. As far as I understood, the government had only employed one disaster coordinator for the whole parish, and there was just too much work to be completed for one person, hence the emergency shelter list not being updated for five years. I think this illustrates just how important volunteers are in this kind of work.

My second task was to visit a local underprivileged primary school to conduct an assessment of the buildings and grounds and to write a tailored Disaster Plan for the school. It is the law in Jamaica for every school to have an implemented Disaster Plan, but the government does not have the funds (or the interest) to act upon this law in many underprivileged schools. Therefore, this is another important job for volunteers.

Originally, I was expecting to write a plan exclusively for natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes. However, when I arrived at the school the principal explained how many children get injured in road accidents just meters from the school, as there is no fencing and no signs to warn them of nearby traffic. Because of this, I made several laminated “out of bounds” signs that were put in place to warn children away from the road. Likewise, I re-made the “exit” signs in the classrooms so they were more durable and clearer should children need to use the emergency exit.

Other Disaster Management volunteers I was working with led classes with the students and teachers at the school to teach them all about hurricanes and earthquakes and what to do should one happen while they are at school. My Disaster Plan suggested many recommendations of small improvements that could be made in the school facilities to make it safer during a disaster. For instance, installing lockable shutters in the open windows and regularly checking and replacing fire alarms and extinguishers. Soon after I left Jamaica the school year finished, so I am unsure whether these recommendations have been taken on.

Before arriving in Jamaica I had very limited previous experience in disaster management from Geography A-Level, so being set the task to write an entire Disaster Plan was daunting. I was surprised yet pleased with the amount of responsibility, independence and the leading role I was given by the company.

My work on the Disaster Management Project really showed me the key importance of educating underprivileged societies in order to prepare for and mitigate the effects of natural disasters in the future. The reason why many poor countries suffer so badly during disasters is largely due to the lack of knowledge local people have on them, as well as the lack of government priorities and funds toward building sufficient infrastructure which could withstand these natural hazards.

I worked on my project from Monday to Friday each week, then during weekends, the volunteers were given days off to travel around Jamaica. So, as well as aiding the community at the local level by completing the tasks above, I was able to see so many different aspects of the country. We visited the Blue Lagoon in Port Antonio, swam in the Glistening Waters in Montego Bay, swam with dolphins and sharks in Ocho Rios, and went cliff jumping in Negril.

Making life-long friends with other volunteers from all over the world was a huge highlight over this month. I was able to completely immerse myself in the Jamaican culture and I was surprised by how incredibly friendly the Jamaican people were and how safe I felt in the country. 

I think volunteering was such an amazing way to see a completely different side of Jamaica that I would not have seen on a family holiday. I would definitely recommend volunteering abroad to anyone, specifically with ProjectsAbroad.

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Alice Forsyth

3rd-year History & Politics | Comment & Politics Editor for The Yorker, 2017/2018