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A Preparedness Wake-up Call for Cyprus

I just returned from a week of teaching an emergency management graduate program in Cyprus and, as is often the case, I ended up learning as much from the students as they learned from me. Major disasters are relatively rare in Cyprus. Other than a magnitude 6.8 earthquake in 1996 that did not result in any casualties (but was the largest since 1953), annual wildfires and droughts, the island nation has generally avoided the brunt of manmade or natural disasters. But alas, tranquillity breeds complacency.

On July 11, 2011, massive explosions rocked southern Cyprus (see video). A visitor to the island might have jumped to the conclusion that a terrorist attack had just occurred; but the Cypriots knew better. They had remembered that a ship travelling to Syria from Iran had been seized in January 2009 with 98 containers of explosives aboard. The 2,000 tons of explosives were subsequently stored at the Evangelos Florakis naval base. In the two years since the seizure, the explosives had been stored in unsatisfactory conditions, unprotected and exposed. On that hot July day last year, a wildfire raged near the facility and soon thereafter, the facility became a tinderbox with ensuing explosions.

The Cypriot President described it as “a catastrophe of biblical proportions.”

Thirteen were killed and much of the military base and surrounding area was decimated by the explosions (see video). But the disaster’s impacts went far beyond the damage to the military base and human toll; it also destroyed the island’s new power plant, which provided electricity to two-thirds of the population. The destruction of the power plant and subsequent economic impact of the disaster was estimated to be $2.83 billion, which is over 10 percent of the country’s GDP. Thus, the incident is a case study in a failure to mitigate obvious hazards prior to catastrophe and demonstrates the wide-ranging impacts an incident can have to a population well outside the incident site.

A postscript to the disaster occurred while I was in Cyprus: manslaughter charges were filed against the former Defence Minister and former Foreign Minister. While the alleged culpability of these officials in the disaster should be considered by the court, the government of Cyprus would be well-advised to not simply look back at the failure that occurred, but also plan ahead for future disasters.

Now is the time for Cyprus to address the hazards it faces, mitigate them to the extent possible, and prepare for future disasters that will inevitably occur. Establishing a comprehensive emergency management program would be a step in the right direction.

And hopefully, my students will be called upon to form the leadership team of a future Cyprus Emergency Management Agency.