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May 30, 2006

NEMO officials tours Toledo, Cayo for disaster preparedness

Story PictureWe don’t know where the months went but guess what: it’s that time of the year again. News Five’s Alyssa Noble reports on how NEMO is preparing for whatever may lie ahead in Toledo and Cayo.

Alyssa Noble, Reporting
With the start of the hurricane season fast approaching, NEMO is busy ensuring that Belize is ready for any storm which may be heading our way. Lt. Colonel George Lovell, National Emergency Coordinator for NEMO, believes that the best way to certify our nation?s level of readiness is by personally visiting the areas of vulnerability.

Lt. Col. George Lovell, National Emergency Coordinator, NEMO
?This type of tour that we are doing has started for about two years now. Two years ago we were in Dangriga and Orange Walk, last year we were in Corozal. We also visited San Pedro, Ambergris and Caye Caulker. What we plan to do this year is to visit Toledo district and the Cayo district, which is a main catchment area. It is geared up toward us being able at the head quarters to know exactly what we need to do to refine our plans for preparedness.?

According to area representative, Mike Espat, Chairman of the Toledo Emergency Operation Committee, those plans must include provisions for improved accessibility.

Mike Espat, Chairman, Toledo E.O.C.
?We have close to fifty-three villages in the Toledo district and there are several rivers between these villages and if we don?t have proper communication with them, we can?t reach them by road so the only other way to reach them is by telephone or by radio. And so far, we have not been able to. Punta Gorda is along the sea and if we had a category five hurricane, we would have to evacuate Punta Gorda town. Which is another grave concern in where would we put the people if we were to evacuate the town which has a population close to six thousand people? We don?t have any adequate shelter for six thousand people in any designated area in the Toledo district. So that is a great concern for us, especially being a coastal town.?

And while the Cayo district is located well inland, it is very much susceptible to catastrophic flooding.

Mario Castellanos, Chairman, Cayo E.O.C.
?Flooding is of great concern to us here in Cayo affecting our agricultural community, the farmers in our area, roads are damaged and access to some areas are prevented and in some cases, we evacuate people in the Bullet Tree area, in the San Ignacio area because of the flooding. Communication we?re pretty well organized in that way. Accessibility is something else, as was mentioned earlier, our concern is that if the Hawkesworth Bridge goes down then we are in deep, deep problem. If that happens we are cut off from the rest of the country, and that?s our grave concern.?

That concern is shared by residents of the surrounding villages.

Christobalina Carrias, resident of Santa Familia Village
?I was living in Bullet Tree and I got to come to live here in Santa Familia and here it?s been an experience for me. Whenever a hurricane do comes, we can?t get across from here to Bullet Tree either, just by boat, because walking we can?t get across because the river covers the road from the last houses of our village to Bullet Tree Falls.?

And while government is well aware of the public?s concern, according to Minister of National Emergency Management, Godfrey Smith, there will always be a balancing act between what you?d like to do and what you can afford to do.

Godfrey Smith, Minister of Tourism and National Emergency Management
?Communications and infrastructure are always the top priorities basically in a disaster like a hurricane. There are many different things of concern, but obviously the thing that comes readily to mind is ensuring that hurricane shelters are there and available. Obviously, its one of the more expensive things to have the infrastructure up, so it?s always a case of gradually ensuring that the stock, the plant of shelters that we have available are improved as regularly as we can.?

And while Government does what it ca, Smith cautions that no matter how strong the infrastructure, Belizeans must also take action.

Godfrey Smith
?In any disaster, it?s the preparation, it?s people listening to their radios, evacuating to high ground, because no matter how big a country you are, as you know from recent history of Katrina in the U.S., you can be a first world country and if a disaster hits it can be problematic, so the main thing really is preparation.?

And the time to prepare is now, not later.

Alyssa Noble reporting for News Five.

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