Top 5 Challenges in Emergency Preparedness: An Island Perspective

By Tara Hines, MSPH, Student, MS in Biodefense

Emergency preparedness is a constantly changing field, dedicated to being, literally, ready for anything. Whether it is an act of terrorism or a natural disaster such as a hurricane, having the necessary people and resources in place is key to effectively keeping a population safe.

When disaster strikes, government agencies and non-government humanitarian organizations need to respond quickly. The bigger the disaster, the more resources are required and the further these need to travel to reach affected populations. If a disaster affects airports, ports, railroads, bridges, and roads, the response will be greatly complicated. In the worst-case scenario, people can flee on foot to a “safer” area and await assistance.

But what happens when you are the victim of a devastating disaster on an island? While Bermuda was spared the devastation that hurricanes Irma, Jose, and Maria recently wreaked on islands in the Caribbean, it might not be so lucky next time.

Luckily, the discipline of biodefense is up for the challenge. The great part about biodefense is that it integrates public health, public safety, and basic science to provide health security. This interdisciplinary approach lets us tap into all of these areas to identify potential problems and suggest possible solutions, before a disaster strikes. Plus, biodefense work can be done anywhere and is crucial everywhere!

Here are the top five greatest challenges we have seen, from the health security view, in Bermuda.

Geography

Bermuda, best known for its role in an elusive triangle, is a 21-square mile collection of islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Bermuda is a connected by vulnerable two-lane causeways. The closest land mass is hundreds of miles away.

Clearly, even in paradise, Bermuda needs a different kind of plan.

Bermuda is often thought of as a Caribbean island country, primarily because of its tropical climate and the melting pot of Caribbean ancestors who are, today, Bermudian residents. Indeed, Bermuda enjoys strong ties to countries like Jamaica, Anguilla, Trinidad and Tobago, and the British Virgin Islands, which were devastated by hurricanes Irma, Jose, and Maria. At the same time, Bermuda is not actually part of the Caribbean region, being roughly a thousand miles away from the Caribbean Sea and does not even have direct commercial flights to the region.

Collaboration & Communication

Responsibility and information in a time of crisis often suffers from being siloed. Health security is the Rosetta Stone needed to improve communication and build relationships between departments that are devoted to specific issues such as the operation of ports and airports, healthcare, public safety, regulation of services to be offered, and emergency medical services. The structure of Bermuda’s government, under the Premier, does not adequately reflect the unique demands of health security with a very clear delineation of the functions between the Ministry of National Security and the Ministry of Health, without a mechanism to bridge the gap between these two ministries.

Military History & Capacity

As a British Overseas Territory, Bermuda has a history of providing land for bases used by the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, Royal Canadian Navy, US Navy, US Army, and US Coast Guard, to name a few. Currently, there are no British or foreign military forces stationed on the island, depriving it of a potential source of support during a disaster. Bermuda itself maintains a cadre of volunteers and cadet corps recruits, known as the Bermuda Regiment. In order to mobilize, the Bermuda Regiment relies on supplies from the Royal military. Following the triple-whammy of hurricanes Irma, Jose, and Maria, the Bermuda Regiment was deployed via the Royal Air Force throughout the Caribbean to assist in response and recovery operations. At the same time, there have also been calls by Bermudians to retain these resources at home in case another hurricane emerges.

Access to Services

One of the greatest misconceptions about Bermuda is that it is a developing country with a developing health infrastructure. In reality, Bermuda has one of the highest per capita incomes and highest costs of living of any country in the world. The country’s rigorous recruiting and immigration process ensures specialists and highly trained employees are brought in to Bermuda to offer whatever services are needed and cannot be found locally. These services are not framed for disaster, though, and many local Bermudians do not support accepting foreign expertise. On the contrary, many Bermudian citizens feel services are based primarily on the perceived needs of the island’s wealthy and influential elite. This creates an environment where the most vulnerable in any disaster are even more marginalized and excluded from accessing services.   

Access to Goods

Along with services, access to goods is a constant background theme of struggle and privilege. Regardless of finance, some items are difficult or illegal to acquire even under good conditions. Add in a threat or natural disaster, and anything from medication to food can become non-existent. Recently, with the devastation from hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria, Bermuda has seen a decline in food necessities and the availability of medications. With these challenges, the island is unable to produce enough food to be self-sufficient, and even with government intervention is subject to the whim of Mother Nature.

With limited resources and the continuing risks posed by hurricane season, preparing for and responding to disasters, even on an island as beautiful as Bermuda presents constant challenges. By providing an integrated understanding health security threats and the tools to address these threats, the MS in Biodefense is helping me prepare Bermuda to safely weather the next storm.

Learn more about graduate programs in biodefense at the Schar School.