Climate, alert and prevention: what France must improve to preserve its heritage

France is particularly vulnerable to climate risks. The French Overseas Departments are areas perhaps the most exposed to climate risks (such as hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc.). However, national systems don’t seem to be on par with the intensity of these catastrophes.

This topic is more than relevant when we realize that an island like Guadeloupe has a hurricane every four years on average. The most noteworthy were Hurricane Irma in 2017 and Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

Besides paralyzing the region’s economic infrastructure, these events can result in many different types of losses:

  • Human: Hurricane Irma killed 134 people, including 15 in the French Antilles.
  • Financial: More than 95% of buildings were damaged on the islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthélemy after the hurricane came through.
  • Administrative: During and after each hurricane, government institutions as well as the entire economy are paralyzed by inactivity.


Mobile versus cell broadcast: which alert method to choose?

Cell phone messages are generally preferred cause it’s easy to use. However, the problem with SMS messages is that the networks become quickly overloaded during a crisis. By contrast, cell broadcast has the advantage of not becoming overloaded during a crisis. What’s more, improvements to cell broadcast in terms of bandwidth and latency are expected with the arrival of 5G.

As a reminder, cell broadcast is a system for sending text messages looking like SMS, not to a phone, but to a network cell (hence its name) or operator network antennas. This cell then sends the message to all cell phones in the geographical area relayed by the antenna. This message is identical for all subscribers using the system who are located within the same geographical area.

Even if this system appears to some as a panacea, the goal is to employ multiple alert distribution channels to be sure that the message reaches as many people as possible.


Are there other alert systems?

Social networks are being considered more and more. We now understand how a social network has the capacity (for better or worse) to create, magnify or accelerate a social crisis. The Gilet Jaunes (Yellow Vests) are a perfect example.

To continue the use of social networks for alerting the public, a true individual strategy (on the part of the person publishing the information) and professional strategy (on the part of community managers) is needed. This is why we believe the State’s presence is essential on social networks to confirm or deny information. 

Numerous other tools can also be considered and used. When all the phone networks are overloaded and the internet is down, it’s essential to have the ability to use other forms of technology to alert. In this regard, we can randomly use television or radio. In France, we now have 12,000 radio transmitters and approximately one radio per 7,000 inhabitants. The radio transmitter would be the most valuable tool in the event of a major climate risk when telecom networks are broken because it allows the dissemination of local information.

What about other countries?

In 2011, the Sendai earthquake caused a tsunami. We noticed that the highest survival rates weren’t related to technology, but to solidarity between neighbors. Since then, innovations have been introduced in Japan. Sensors can inform the public of potential tsunamis and seismic tremors at their origin with quick and easy-to-understand warning systems. 

In France, there are also earthquake and tsunami risks near the Mediterranean. It’s estimated that it would take 30 minutes for a tsunami coming from Algeria to arrive on French beaches. However, we don’t have the same resources allocated to seismic risk prevention research.  

First of all, because the risks are lower. Also, since we don’t have the same “chain of command”, we would actually have to go directly from sensor to alert without human and governmental intermediaries (prefects, mayors, local authorities, etc.). Furthermore, the sensor must have an extended range to emit from the epicenter, and to alert populations far away.

Finally, and above all, because in France, there are only 100,000€ set aside to afford the preventive informations to populations. Belgium, on the other hand, has 1,000,000€. 

According to Gaël Musquet, President of HAND (Hackers Against Natural Disasters), the problem stems from elected officials who are not educated on these subjects. This is exactly what prevents them from passing the appropriate laws. They cannot draft the right specifications or requisition the most effective and appropriate alert systems.


CARIB WAVE, preparation in action

On March 14, 2019, a major public alert exercise will be held. It will take place throughout all the Caribbean islands, especially in Guadaloupe, Martinique and Guyana. 500,000 people will be involved and will be placed in simulated situations. In order to prepare for all types of risks possible, two scenarios are planned: a landslide off the coast of Panama and a volcanic eruption off the coast of Grenada. This exercise is regularly organized through the Unesco initiative. In September 2018, it had already taken place at the Meeting.

This is an exercise eagerly anticipated by the public, as it’s the only way to prepare for the risks often faced. However, problems remain due to the lack of communication on the part of state institutions regarding this exercise which, with an appropriate amount of promotion, could raise public awareness on actions to be taken in the event of a crisis. It remains to be seen what the results of this training will be… See you on March 14, 2019 for more information.


 To read: How to deal with the unexpected during a crisis?