DEM Head ‘Calls It A Day’ After Sterling Career

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Storm force winds, raging fires and rising flood waters were no match for Judy Thomas, during the 26 years she stood at the helm of Barbados??? national emergency response system.

In fact, not even a fall received during the 2007 earth tremor felt across the island could keep the then Director of the Department of Emergency Management (DEM) off her feet.

Ms. Thomas recalls the many fires, floods, storms, the possible threats and damage left by systems such as Hurricanes David, Allan, Hugo, and Gilbert, and even the volcanic eruption in Montserrat.

But, it was the five lives lost in the Arch Cot tragedy in August 2007, and those lost at Joe???s River, St. Joseph, in July of that same year, that will forever be etched in the mind of the now retired Director.

She recalls the long hours involved in the Arch Cot tragedy, which saw an Incident Command site being activated 24 hours a day for a full week, while the Joe???s River tragedy for her was simply just ???gruesome???.

But, after years of adrenaline pumping to activate Barbados??? National Emergency systems in the face of disaster or crisis, Ms. Thomas, who retired officially on May 1 after 49 years in the public service, is more than ready to activate her retirement and embrace all that it brings.

Topping her list is the ability to simply just relax after performing what was often described as ???a man???s job???, a role she played while balancing caring for her young son.

???I am a Thomas born in Mount Standfast. We are all in one cluster and I had a family and an extended family. I knew when I left, someone would pick up my son so that was never a problem,??? she said, explaining how she juggled caring for her son and being constantly on call.

But, don???t expect her to be any less busy than she was when she carried the mantle for this island???s safety and security during times of disaster.

In fact, she already has a packed itinerary for her retirement – from caring for her mum and aunt; spending time with her granddaughter and other new additions to the family; sewing; sorting out her home; learning French and how to play the piano; and returning to her first love, this time at a professional level, painting.

???I will not be idle or bored. This thing about ???sitting down home and you will be bored??? is not going to be my experience at all,??? Ms. Thomas declared, while admitting that she was still unwinding and her brain was still slowing down, from going ???90 knots an hour???.

Service to her community is also high on the agenda for the retiree, who already has her eyes on the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides movements to see where she can be of assistance and work with the young people. She also has plans to assist the District Emergency Organisation in her area to get it ???up and running???.

Surrounded by awards obtained over the years, walls decorated by paintings she created, and pictures of family members, Ms. Thomas reflected on her journey from a Clerk in the Registry at Services Commission in 1966, to an Information Officer at the Barbados Government Information Service (BGIS), to Supervisor of the then Central Emergency Relief Organisation (CERO), and then Director of the DEM.

As a Clerk, Ms. Thomas recalled being responsible for all the records in the Civil Service. However, after accepting a suggestion to learn more about the emerging field of public relations, she pursued a degree in the area in 1972. That eventually earned her a position at the BGIS upon her return in 1975.

???I was instrumental in the concept of introducing public relations officers attached to ministries… The concept was eventually understood and we were then assigned to departments,??? she said, noting she also had a vision to transform the BGIS into a multimedia agency for information management.

However, life threw her for a curve before she could achieve this vision, when she was reassigned to CERO in 1983.??But as the saying goes: ???when life hands you lemons, make lemonade???.

???It was a corporate organisation where you could use all the skills that you had in public relations and public education to zero in on a discipline. It fitted in well with the concept that I would have had in that I would have been working for the disaster management profession using the multimedia approach I had for GIS [so] I started with that,??? she explained.

And so, in her new role, Ms. Thomas set out to create a greater awareness of hurricane hazards in Barbados and around the region, while at the same time trying to change negative mindsets that suggested the country would not be impacted.

The first time she was ???called out??? was to one of the ???terrific??? Speightstown floods in 1983, a call that makes her laugh even to this day. The joke was she never actually went to the area!

???I was not sent because I was female and I would be going out in rain and mud. I never took that to be a good reason because it didn???t make sense. I never went to Speightstown but I worked in the coordination of the response,??? she recalled with a smile.

Reflecting on her years of service, particularly those spent at the DEM, the retired Director admitted that she did not know how she coped. Her only conclusion: ???God had my back. He pushed me from behind; he pulled me up. I saw divine facilitation in all I had to do.???

To be continued…

julia.rawlins-bentham@barbados.gov.bb

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