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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, June 21, 2004

Summit maps out disaster plan

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

Delegates from 17 Pacific nations and territories spent last week in Hawai'i charting a course that they hope within 10 years will leave them less vulnerable to disasters — those generated by nature as well as the calamities caused by terrorists and social unrest.

The five-day Pacific Health Summit for Sustainable Disaster Risk Management concluded Friday at the East-West Center.

The summit was sponsored by the University of Hawai'i's school of medicine, in association with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Pacific Emergency Health Initiative and the University of Texas School of Public Health.

Participants spent the week hammering out the first draft of a document summarizing the needs of individual countries and the region as a whole, and describing progress made in disaster recovery, said Mark Keim of the CDC.

The statement will be presented next year at a United Nations disaster reduction conference in Kobe, Japan, to communicate how much progress the developing nations of the Pacific want to make in the next decade, Keim said.

"When it comes to environmental disasters, the world needs to know that the highest rate of deaths occur in the Pacific, and yet there's been little money going to this area of the world," he said. "Second, there have been significant strides made, and now, as a world region, they (in the Pacific) have a strategy to move forward."

For example, he said, 22 countries share a public-health surveillance network to help track disease outbreaks and other developments, critical information in planning how to save lives in a disaster.

The strategy for many of the islands involves drawing up their own blueprint for responding to disasters. For example, Palau has laid some of the groundwork by drafting laws to spell out emergency presidential powers, said Sandra Pierantozzi, who serves as the country's vice president as well as its minister of health.

"We'll know who's going to take charge of what and who takes full authority," Pierantozzi said. "We also have memorandums of agreement with the private sector, companies such as Mobil and Shell Oil, to help in a disaster."

She also is worried about terrorism, in part because of Palau's proximity to trouble spots in the Philippines and Indonesia.

Coping with so-called "man-made disasters" has been a true horror for delegate Silent Tovosia, medical director for the Solomon Islands. Tovosia's country has been torn by ethnic civil war since 1998, and the economy took another hit in December 2002 when Cyclone Zoe struck the islands of Tikopia and Anuta. The country was dependent on — and grateful for — aid from the neighboring Australian government.

"Just to maintain normal health services has been a challenge," Tovosia said.

Summit participants included American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Guam, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and Hawai'i.

Reach Vicki Viotti at vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8053.