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‘Heads Should Roll’, But Whose Head Should Be First?

MICAL MP V Alfred Gray has suggested that “heads should roll” over the response of some government agencies to Hurricane Joaquin. He said the Department of Meteorology and NEMA could have done a better job with their advisories and warnings, insisting that the agencies were “seemingly caught off guard”.

Prime Minister Christie did not agree. He felt that the criticism levelled against the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and the Meteorological Office were unwarranted. At the height of the storm, social media was reporting that the Met Office’s Doppler radar had broken down and that NEMA officials were slow to respond to the crisis.

NEMA director Captain Stephen Russell, while agreeing that in the end NEMA would have to accept responsibility, thought that blame ultimately had to fall on the heads of many island administrators who failed to open their shelters.

For example, in Mr Gray’s Acklins constituency, none of the hurricane shelters had opened. Although the administrators were ultimately responsible for opening them, they too might be considered guilty, but with a good explanation. We understand that some of the administrators were pinned down in their homes by the fast-approaching hurricane and could not get to the shelters to turn the key.

Joaquin moved slowly in the beginning, fooling everybody. Right up to the point at which it was to turn off after travelling up our island chain, the experts were still arguing as to whether it would follow the European model’s projections or the other models that took it up to Cape Hatteras in North Carolina or to Maine or to Bermuda. Almost up to the last moment, it kept even the experts on the edge of their chairs.

For once, we agree with Mr Christie. We also feel that the criticism of NEMA and the Met Office is unwarranted. If anyone is to blame we are all to blame for taking the warnings too casually.

The hurricane season officially opened on June 1. On June 2, NEMA, in collaboration with the US Embassy, the Pacific Disaster Centre, and the US Northern Command hosted a disaster Conference for the southern Bahamas. It was held at the Meliá Nassau Beach Resort on Cable Beach. Those attending were Family Island Administrators and representatives from Local Government, and members of the National Consultative Committee. It was to be a national Bahamas knowledge exchange under the theme: “Be Disaster Aware – Building Disaster Resilient Communities”. It concentrated on selecting personnel to train on hazard mapping and the fundamentals of disaster management. We don’t know who was selected or the depth of their training, nor if they were selected for their expertise or their politics.

From then on, NEMA issued warnings throughout the summer on every disturbance that had the possibility of developing in our area with the pundits agreeing that they expected a very quiet season this year – as the year progressed the possibility of a hurricane became even more remote. There was the warning of Fred on August 30th, which showed the possibility of developing, but fizzled. Fred was the sixth tropical storm to show promise, but to die quietly. By the time Joaquin started to stir as a tropical storm, meteorologists were more interested in Marty, which, already a substantial hurricane, was threatening the Mexican coast in the eastern Pacific. Suddenly, attention turned to Tropical Storm Joaquin, which had started to show potential for strengthening.

According to an AccuWeather bulletin, Robert Carron of The Tribune was the first to be informed by AccuWeather of the storm picking up speed and heading for the Bahamas. On Tuesday, September 29, Robert was at Miami International Airport around 6am on his way to Atlanta when his cell phone beeped a message from AccuWeather. As a result of the startling news, he cancelled his trip to Atlanta and was on the first plane back to The Bahamas. Early the next morning, Kirk Smith, Tribune Radio’s News Editor, broadcast the first warning of the approaching storm. Inigo “Naughty” Zenicazelaya picked up the news from Kirk and on his KissFM morning show warned Bahamians to start urgent preparations. The other Tribune Radio DJs also picked up the news and on their various shows also announced the approach of Joaquin.

At noon on Wednesday, September 30 – the Met Office issued a warning and The Tribune and its tribune242 website were reporting those warnings. Leave was immediately cancelled for all Defence Force officers. By Thursday, Hurricane Joaquin, by now a category four hurricane, was ripping the central and southern Bahamas to pieces. In Crooked Island, some were claiming that a tsunami had hit. If it were in fact a tsunami, no trace would have been left of that low lying island. However, Crooked Island has been reconfigured with the ocean claiming a road and a large portion of the land and separating one settlement from the other.

Opposition Leader Dr Hubert Minnis severely criticised Prime Minister Perry Christie for “incompetence” and “blatant disregard” for the people. He was particularly incensed at Mr Christie’s remark in the House of Assembly that this was a “teachable moment”.

Who is to blame? If one is to examine the circumstances — a summer of tropical storm warnings, constantly being called off, and experts assuring us that this would probably be a season without a hurricane, we presume that Bahamians all along the 50-mile stretch of the Bahamas archipelago, paid little, if any attention, to the warnings — especially the tropical storm that at 11pm on Sunday, September 27, showed signs of becoming dangerous.

According to the forecasters, Hurricane Joaquin came extremely late in the season for The Bahamas. It is the first Category 4, since 1866 –149 years – to hit these islands so late in the year. It is also among the top five strongest hurricanes on record to take the Bahamas in its destructive embrace. Of these, it was noted, only three had pressure lower than Joaquin’s, but none of them occurred in October.

Unless, we react to every tropical storm warning as though it were a real hurricane and each time open the shelters, a suggestion made by Bruce Raine in a letter on this page today would offer some security and give an early warning signal. Before the sophistication of the Meteorological Office, all Bahamians had to rely on for an approaching storm was the old fashioned, reliable barometer. Almost every home had one hanging on the wall and it was only by tapping on the face of it and having the knowledge to read the barometric pressure that one would know how to forecast the weather. At one time this was all we ever used. When the pressure started to fall we knew trouble was approaching.

Even after the Met Office was upgraded with modern equipment, the late “Rusty” Bethel – ZNS’ “Voice of the Bahamas” — with his barometer was the only weather forecaster we at The Tribune could count on in a storm — and he always got it right!

This is a simple suggestion, especially for Family Island homeowners. At least it is a better early warning signal of approaching disaster than having to wait for the official news from Nassau. It would be a good investment.

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