Who dropped the ball on the Weather?

Who will take the blame for allowing this Virgin Airbus to land at Hewannora on Christmas Eve under adverse weather conditions, resulting in extensive damage to the underbelly and landing gear?

Who will take the blame for allowing this Virgin Airbus to land at Hewannora on Christmas Eve under adverse weather conditions, resulting in extensive damage to the underbelly and landing gear?

It took everyone by surprise! Or did it? While the official word coming out of National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO) headed by Dawn French on Christmas Day was that the Met Office in Saint Lucia was severely compromised, the STAR has learnt otherwise. Now the question has to be asked, was someone caught sleeping or drunk at the wheel and will heads roll at NEMO and the local Met Office after the Christmas Eve weather disaster that claimed the lives of six and wreaked havoc across the island?

In a release on Christmas Day, NEMO stated that in its assessment following “a weather event which lasted from the morning (around 6:00 am) of December 24th into the early hours (around 4:45 am) of December 25th, 2013,” that forecasters could not predict this weather event as the Met Services equipment had been compromised. Additionally, according to the NEMO statement, radar equipment located in Martinique, on which Saint Lucia’s Met Services depends for weather forecasting, was down, resulting in severely hampered ability to analyze and predict this weather event. But how could this be and why wasn’t the public informed about it on the same day if the radar was indeed down?

Could there be any truth to word on the ground that it had everything to do with allowing Saint Lucians to shop, shop, shop and spend, spend, spend on Christmas Eve, since things had been so bad in the country in the run up to the season, instead of warning them to head home for cover?

On Wednesday the STAR obtained a translation of an interview with officials in Martinique which is contrary to the NEMO report about the French radar. Our source had spoken to Jean Noel De Grasse, the head of Meteo France in Martinique. The interview was carried out by Maurice Nagou.

The first question posed by Nagou to the Met head in Martinique was this: “What really happened with the radar at Diamant? Was it broken down at the time when St. Lucians needed it most?” The response from De Grasse: “The most important thing is that the radar in Martinique was definitely not broken down. It was functioning perfectly.” Shocking you think? So why were we fed such information about the radar?

De Grasse continued: “All of the information that we make available to the other islands in the Lesser Antilles and our neighbours, St. Lucia, Dominica, Antigua and St. Vincent, all of the information was totally accessible. And I mean totally accessible because this year we put in place a cooperation program with the help of the General Council in Martinique, which permits us to share all our information with the countries that I mentioned. And this information is shared on a special website which is based in France and is therefore not affected by any bad weather that we might experience.” He went on to say that all of the information was accessible on Christmas Eve and during Christmas and that it was the same information that was used in Martinique via their radar that also completely covers Saint Lucia. “So all information was live and up to date on the website dedicated to the cooperation program,” De Grasse stated.

“So how do you explain this communique that was written on the Saint Lucia government website?” the interviewer asked.

“I think that certain local decision makers have a habit of using the public website of Meteo France in the Antilles. This website is based in Guadeloupe,” he explained.

“Further, on Tuesday morning, December 24, in Guadeloupe there were heavy storms that disrupted the internet provider, which is independent of Meteo France. So of course the public website did not get the satellite image feed. Once again we have put in place a cooperation programme to help the meteorological services in the Antilles. This parallel systems functions out of France and it is a lot more accurate.”

“This system was always working and received all radar information. And the weather services in Saint Lucia could access all radar information which is so vital when dealing with this kind of situation,” De Grasse reiterated. “They would have had digital models which indicated the strong risk of rain for Saint Lucia, Martinique and Dominica. It was not only over Saint Lucia but we followed the system with the radar,” he added.

So who exactly dropped the ball on this one and why? And will Prime Minister Kenny Anthony as the head of the Disaster Preparedness Unit drop the axe on someone as happened with FEMA in New Orleans a few years ago.

The STAR also spoke with Venancius Descartes, acting Chief Meteorological Officer for Saint Lucia, who denied the NEMO statements about the radar. “So who gave them that information?” I asked. “I do not know,” Descartes responded, adding that the information was incorrect.

He also informed the STAR that he had received a call from an irate De Grasse of Martinique strongly denying the information coming out of Saint Lucia. The Met Officer, with 35 years of experience, went on to say that by noon an advisory had been issued for persons in low lying areas to take caution.  “We issued another weather report at 6pm and by that time we were aware that this trough would have serious adverse effects on the island,” Descartes stated. Asked whether he was ever contacted by NEMO or Dawn French during the day he said “No.”

“Dawn French called me late in the evening but by that time there was nothing much to do but to provide the necessary weather update,” he stated.

But it gets worse. The STAR has also learnt that there was a near disaster at Hewannorra Airport on Christmas Eve, even though on Boxing Day tourism officials were beaming with foolish pride that the island like a brothel was still open for business. A Virgin Atlantic airbus flying in from
Tobago at about 7:30 pm received no warning from the control tower at Hewanorra that the “petite riviere du Vieux Fort” had burst its banks, flooding the runway with water and debris and washing the weather station away. This resulted in the aircraft losing sight of the runway and the area where it should land, causing severe damage to the landing gear of the aircraft. Since then the plane has been stranded at the airport and several other flights have been cancelled since they were not able to refuel at Hewannora.

According to Met Office reports “the system” that affected the island resulted in 171.1mm of rainfall within a 24 hour period ending at 8:50am on December 25th, 2013, causing widespread and severe
flooding in Central Bexon,
Anse-La-Raye, Micoud, Vieux Fort, Dennery and Soufriere. Several roads and bridges were washed away and at least six persons have been confirmed dead.

On Friday before going to press the STAR was informed that head of NEMO, Dawn French was in a meeting with Prime Minister Kenny Anthony. No word yet on the outcome of that meeting.

Special Thanks to Caroline Popovic for the French to English translations, and to Maurice Nagou of Martinique Premiere for the interview itself.

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