By LAMECH JOHNSON
Tribune Staff Reporter
DEMOCRATIC National Alliance leader Branville McCartney is calling on the country to take a proactive approach to the risks that shanty-towns present in the wake of a fire claiming two lives and leaving hundreds homeless in Abaco.
Speaking to The Tribune yesterday and expressing condolences to the family of the two who died, Mr McCartney noted that the New Year’s Day tragedy is “unfortunately” not new.
“This has happened before in other areas and instead of being reactionary, we have to be more proactive regarding these situations so that what happened doesn’t occur again,” the former state minister for immigration said.
“Of course, what happened yesterday is a very sad situation, where there is a loss of life and loss of their homes. Certainly it’s unfortunate to the point I can’t find the words to describe it.”
“I trust that some provisions will be made available to assist those misplaced in the fire. And there’s no evidence as to how the fire started, but I trust they will make a determination on that.”
The fire started around 9:30pm New Year’s Eve 2013 in the Pigeon Pea area in Marsh Harbour, Abaco, and continued burning into New Year’s day.
According to sources in Abaco, because of the proximity of the homes in Pigeon Pea, fire-fighters had to fight the fire from the outside. It took them nearly six hours to completely extinguish the blaze.
The fire claimed the lives of a mother and her year-old son.
Deputy Prime Minister Philip “Brave” Davis, as well as Minister of Social Services Melanie Griffin, the National Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross, flew into Abaco early yesterday morning to speak with the residents and assess the damage.
Mr Davis told the residents that the government will do all it can to ensure a situation like this does not happen again, but he asked the members of the community to make certain that their homes are up to standard.
Mrs Griffin said Social Services will do all they can to help the residents get through this tragedy, she also assured them that the government will do no immigration round ups at this time.
“We are making efforts right now to get food and assistance for these persons,” she said. “We have also set up a place where assistance will be done and we hope the victims will come and be properly assessed so we can truly say what their needs are and we can help them. After we see what they need, we will go from there.”
Yesterday, commenting on what should become of the land held by the now-destroyed shanty-town left unoccupied as a result of the raging inferno, Mr McCartney said the government has to find out who owned the land the persons were on, “whether its Crown land or privately owned.”
“I’m not sure if it was owned by the government, but if it is Crown land, a determination will have to be made on doing what it is they said they would do when they became the government concerning communities such as those. The government has been awfully quiet on this.”
Mr McCartney said time would tell what the government would do for the hundreds left homeless, including the option of rebuilding the homes for those without legal status in the Bahamas.
“I don’t want to sound insensitive but the point is, if you’re illegal, you should not be here.”
“If the government decides to rebuild homes for persons found to have no legal status, then it is very concerning and I have to think they have to be very careful about how they proceed,” he said.
Free National Movement Chairman Darren Cash also commented on the shanty town tragedy and is holding the government to task.
Mr Cash said that “the PLP government is learning once again for what must be the 1,000th time since their return to office that it is infinitely easier to run their mouths in Opposition than it is to effectively run the government.”
Speaking to the response of the DPM and the minister of Social Services, Mr Cash said, “They said most of the things that right-thinking Bahamians would expect them to say; they expressed regret for the incident, vowed that the agencies of government would step forward to assist the poor people affected and used the occasion of public attention to speak to the need
for the affected residents to assume a greater level of responsibility for their own safety, not to mention the need to respect for the laws of the land. They demonstrated a surprising and almost shocking degree of...maturity and humanity. “
“This is a stark contrast to the shallow scare politics of division that they played when the fire at Mackey Yard took place during the FNM’s last term,” Mr Cash said.
“The humane, mature and responsible words spoken and actions taken by the FNM government were savagely criticized by opportunist PLP candidates as nothing short of the FNM being soft on illegal immigrants and wickedly currying favour with Haitians to win votes. The FNM’s commitment to orderly redevelopment of the area, for the benefit of Bahamian, was still wickedly portrayed as selling land to illegals. That was then.”
On June 13, 2013, Environment Minister Kenred Dorsett stated that the government had commenced the issuance of notices to the owners of shanty-towns and that they will continue to issue such notices.
A month later, a fire ripped through the Joe Farrington Road site on July 22 destroying more than 75 homes and leaving more than 150 people homeless.
Afterwards, Dorsett said that officials have been ordered to prosecute land owners who have yet to ensure shanty town residents have complied with regulations.
However, months passed and there had been no word from the government on what they would do about the issue.
Noting the government’s “hard-lined stance” against shanty-towns, Mr Cash said “we will watch to see what action – if any – is taken in this shanty-town.”
“Minister Griffin has already (appropriately) stated that this tragedy will not be used as a means of rounding up illegal immigrants. Interestingly, at a time when this same minister is dealing with growing levels of poverty among Bahamians, her government has publicly declared its commitment to help relocate and house the persons affected by this Abaco fire.
“And recently, the government paid the land clearing and debris moving bill for private land owners affected by the fire on Joe Farrington Road, even though the land owners were collecting rent from tenants on the land. PLP waste continues, and it is impossible to tell what they really believe and are committed to.”