"Excellent," was the word Operations Officer Jim Janmohamed used to describe the outcome of Exercise Millennium Breeze, a four day hurricane preparedness drill that took place last week in Belize. The simulation of a real hurricane, "Sylvia", was officially announced by the Prime Minister at 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday, May 12th. This was declared Phase 1 of the Hurricane Plan for Belize. At this announcement, the National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO) activated and flew the Preliminary Red Flag over the country of Belize.
The drill was intricately detailed in every phase so as to follow exactly the progress of Hurricane Sylvia as a test of NEMO's capability to inform the nation during an emergency. Emergency committees came alive to avoid the ill preparedness of last year's threat of Hurricane Mitch. Details of the storm included wind speed and direction, latitude, longitude, proximity to Belize and estimates on what it would do next. Plans and proper procedures were adopted by officers and members of various teams throughout the country. A government control staff observed reactions, updated committees and posed mock problems and situations for them. Each operation was evaluated by selected individuals.
Local students and parents, joined by 50 people from Caye Caulker participated in a mock evacuation to the mainland. They were met at the Fiesta Inn dock in Belize City by NEMO, and transported to government designated shelters in San Ignacio in the Cayo District for the duration of the exercise. The Operations Manager noted that dispatching of evacuees went extremely smooth with almost all being dispatched within five minutes after arrival. Since it was a mock evacuation the students were provided educational tours, during their time away, to the Natural History Museum, the Butterfly Farm at Chaa Creek and the Belize Zoo. They returned to San Pedro Friday evening when the operation ceased.
The San Pedro Emergency Committee (SPEC) went to work performing their many tasks in keeping with the exercise. Phase 1, the preliminary stage is when the hurricane is likely to hit within 48 hours. At this time, the committee set up office in the Town Hall. Members took control of scenarios presented to them by NEMO pertaining to their individual roles within the committee. Some of the challenges mentioned were stranded boats, injured persons, people wandering aimlessly through the streets, looting and vandalism. The SPEC consisted of: Chairperson, Hon. Patty Arceo; Vice Chair, Mayor Alberto Nuñez; Operations Manager, James Janmohamed; Liaison Officer, Belize Defense Force, Sgt. Martinez; Transportation Member, Norman Eiley; Evacuation Officer, Gach Guerrero; Tourist Representative, Einer Gomez; Supplies Member (for this exercise), Milo Paz Jr.; Communications Member, Jim Diehl; Belize Electricity Ltd. Officer, Chris Nuñez; Water and Sewerage Authority Member, Aaron Locke; Belize Telecommunications Ltd. Technician in Charge, Francis Usher; Medical Officer, Dr. Lerida Rodriguez; Shelter Member, Domingo Perez; and Representative Fire Service, Marcus Makin. Though constantly being tracked, official updates on the storm were given every four to six hours. Mr. Janmohamed told the Sun that because of the evacuation lessons learned during Hurricane Mitch, all phases (1,2, 3 and green) would begin earlier to give more time to prepare.
"Red 1", Phase 2 of the Category 5 hurricane was proclaimed at midday on Thursday, May 13th. At this time, the storm is estimated to likely hit within 24 hours and the SPEC was moved into higher accommodations at the Alijua Building. Quoting a Press release from Communications Member, Jim Diehl, the committee "for 24 hours, was put through an intense Category 5 hurricane simulation". Mr. Janmohamed stated that the National Coordinator of NEMO, Anthony Sylvester, reported how impressed he was with the problem solving. It was noted that many problems were solved by the emergency committee before the coordinators could even implement them and some jokingly wondered if they "had peeked into their notes". Mr. Sylvester continued to comment that the SPEC was, "one of the best emergency/disaster committees they've seen."
"Red 2", Phase 3 was declared by 6:00 p.m. Thursday evening. This phase is critical as the threat of the hurricane is likely to occur with four hours. The committee was then confined to headquarters and ordered patrols off of the streets. The possibility of a direct hit by the storm is imminent at this point and safety for all is a major issue.
Interviewing Mr. Janmohamed he listed some of his evaluation concerns as 1) equipment-related communication problems, 2) needing additional time for some phases during the drill, 3) lack of police force manpower, 4) rescue equipment - faster boats and the need for an "ambulance" boat. Planes cannot fly at a certain point in the evacuation process and a boat would be the only alternative emergency vehicle.
The Green Flag was finally flown at 6:00 a.m. on Friday morning, May 14th, signaling the exhaustive end of the exercise. This is declared at a time when it is deemed safe for anyone to come outside and travelers will be advised whether or not to return to certain areas.
A letter to the residents of San Pedro regarding the arrangements to make in the event of a hurricane were prepared and are available at the San Pedro Town Board. Included is a form to be filled out if you will be requiring evacuation in an emergency. The SPEC urges everyone to obtain a copy, fill it out and return it to Town Board so you can be reached in the event of an emergency. In a real evacuation situation, they will be advising all residents to evacuate the island and not to rely on the committee for shelter. At this time they are in discussions with the government with regards to an official shelter, but that a shelter would need to be shared by committee members and police officers in any case. In the event of a real disaster, the public is advised to stay tuned to radio and television announcements for advise.
The San Pedro Emergency Committee would further like to thank everyone who participated in Exercise Millennium Breeze, especially the parents and students who evacuated during the process.
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