Getting ready for an emergency… in the middle of another emergency

Earlier this week, Venezuela just barely dodged Tropical Storm Bret. But what would a major natural disaster be like in Venezuela today?

La masa no está pa bollos, so it’s just as well that Caracas dodged a Hurricane scare earlier this week. Defying earlier forecasts, Tropical Storm Bret tracked north and spared the Venezuelan coast what might have been a disastrous visit.

Hurricanes only rarely hit Venezuela. Atlantic storm systems usually track north of here, making major storms relatively uncommon. But they have happened in the past in 1993, a big storm coincidentally also named Bret killed 173 Venezuelans and left 11,000 homeless.

“You’re never fully prepared for an emergency,” says Víctor Lira, head of Miranda State’s Government civil defense (Protección Civil.)

And yet, in a country facing medicine shortages where the simplest tasks become an odyssey, a natural emergency could quickly become an unmanageable nightmare.

First responders have been giving first aid courses in exchange for getting Protección Civil vehicle repairs.

Lira is confident his team is well prepared for any eventuality. His guys have trained in Chile, in the US, the best places. But in Venezuela, great training only gets you so far. From there on out, you gotta improvise.

For his staff, using bits of cardboard, wood or tree branches to patch up a broken bone is now routine, for instance. These aren’t guys who are going to stop doing a job just due to lack of supplies.  

Thinking through big catastrophe scenarios a big storm or an earthquake, with multiple emergencies at the same time stresses Victor Lira out. The sorry state of his vehicle fleet is one big reason why. With spare parts in desperately short supply, when an ambulance or a jeep breaks down, it often just stays broken.

Lira is meant to look after all of Miranda State’s 2,330,872 people spread out over 7,950 Km2 (including 128 Km2 of high-risk areas) with just 16 firefighter stations. Each of those fire stations is meant to each have an ambulance, a fire engine and a rescue vehicle usually a 4×4. Most of the time, Lira tells me, just one out of the three vehicles is running. Separately, Protección Civil has its own network of sites, each of which is meant to have at least four vehicles. Again, most are lucky to have one working.

“Many times a simple repair exceeded our budget or we can’t find the piece needed to get the car going again. Sometimes the alternator is missing, the starter, or you find you can’t go out and save a life because the ambulance has no tires,” Lira said.

The Miranda Protección Civil budget for 2017 for this year is Bs 1.2 billion —just $150,000, at the Alabama HomeDepot exchange rate— of that 93% goes to staff salaries. 4% is used on services and 3% for operations.

Each Protección Civil station should have at least four vehicles. Again, most are lucky to have one working.

“During an emergency is when you really need those vehicles, to reach the victims. Once you get there, you can improvise, you know, y resuelves. But you can’t improvise if you can’t get there.”

So how do you cope? You hustle. Miranda’s Civil Defense has been signing up volunteers who own 4×4 trucks, asking them to make their cars available to tend to emergency cases. They’ve been giving first aid courses in exchange for getting their Protección Civil vehicles repaired… Any strategy will do when you’re working con las uñas.

Although Lira is confident in his team, he knows that dealing with a tragedy in the middle of the crisis that Venezuela is currently mired in is almost a impossible task.  

“We have limited access to medical supplies,” he says, in a firm voice.

In Miranda, the ambulances do not have what it takes to provide basic emergency medical care. Much of his equipment is years out of date. “We’re making due with tools that were bought many years ago”. Even if they find the money to get new rescue equipment, they probably can’t find a company in Venezuela that sells it.

Of course, the medicine shortages are hard to be relaxed about. Large-scale disasters that displace numbers of people from their homes are often followed by outbreaks of infectious diseases, as people struggle to cope in unfamiliar surroundings without basic water and sanitation facilities. Diarrhea, for instance, is often a problem. Though one of the easiest conditions to treat, it does require specialized medical material… and if you don’t have it, well, it hardly bears thinking about.

In a country that already deals with problems with electricity, water, food and medicines, even after hearing the confident answers of Lira, it’s impossible not to feel a chill when you think about the possibility of a big natural disaster. If we’re not prepared to cope with everyday life, how are we going to think about the day after a tragedy?

For now, we can just be grateful that Bret didn’t visit us as we admire the professionalism and can-do spirit of our Protección Civil guys. They’re working with nothing; but, as Lira says, “nosotros resolvemos.”