By NICOLE BURROWS
TO NO one’s surprise, I am sure, the aftermath of Hurricane Joaquin reveals a long list of developmental inadequacies in The Bahamas.
First among them is the thinking inherited from one dependent Bahamian generation to the next that the government is solely or ultimately responsible for the people and nothing of consequence can be done without its help or approval.
That, we’ve seen, can only be as true as the people allow it to be, evidenced by the scores of private citizens and private businesses that have come to the rescue of their fellow Bahamians on Joaquin-ravaged islands.
I’ve heard it said, often, that the people of Long Island are particularly independent of government assistance or other significant intervention; if there’s something to be done in their communities, and they can do it, they do it. If there’s a problem and they can find a way to take care of it, they take care of it without waiting for the government to step in on their behalf.
Long Islanders boast a resilience that Nassauvians are typically unable to brag about. And it does have something to do with being required to be more self-sufficient, as a more remote islander, versus being a mostly dependent and somewhat spoiled city-dweller.
The ability of the people to stand in the gap themselves, whenever there is an issue that affects them, is crucial to recovery from any disaster, man-made or natural. And that is where most of our people will fail in the aftermath of a storm. Because time after time, the heavy reliance of the people on ‘da govman’ is demonstrated. But even though the government might make every effort to cause the people to believe it is their daddy, it is not. The government is not and should never be your daddy, certainly not to the point of rendering you helpless or failing to improve your helplessness.
I take note of the local TV news interview of two sisters from Crooked Island, their account of misery during the raging storm and their traumatic escape from their home on the island. I am moved by their words, and mostly by the little boy who wipes away his mommy’s tears and kisses her on her shoulder as she cries.
These women – and many others – say they had no (proper) warning of the impending storm, while NEMA, the agency tasked with disaster preparedness in The Bahamas, insists it provided what it needed to provide as regards reliable and frequent information about Hurricane Joaquin. And although I am in this moment fully acknowledging that telecommunications on Crooked Island are not what they are on New Providence, I have to wonder why it is that anyone would rely solely on the provision of official government agency notifications to be well-informed, when the reality is unfolding immediately in front of them.
As much as I want to live on a considerably less populated island in The Bahamas, I couldn’t imagine waiting for ZNS, NEMA or the Met Office in Nassau to tell me that the newly reclaimed roadway and the steadily rising flood waters knocking at my door were bad signs. But maybe that’s just because my mind works in a way that causes me not to rely wholly on anyone or to trust as gospel what a previously unreliable government administration provides to me in the way of important information.
I’m certain I’m not alone in my thinking that the people of our Family Islands – though perhaps not necessarily the larger or more populated islands of The Bahamas – are and have always been far more in tune with their natural habitat than the people of New Providence, who have become true city folk and lost much of the informal but incomparable education of our ancestors.
To this day, my mum still tells me what Papa (my grandfather) used to say about the weather when there was a certain type of moon, or what specific natural occurrences meant for mariners, or how to interpret animal behaviour with respect to weather ... things the old-time Bahamians could identify far in advance of whatever was to come.
After hearing these stories, Family Island Bahamians always appear to me to be wiser than Nassauvians when it comes to weather, climate, agriculture and the natural environment. Because of this, I struggle to understand how it is that they, being so aligned with nature, could see the signs of an approaching storm and not make their own provisions and preparations. And with hints like an abnormally rising sea level, high and building winds, why would they not find these phenomena odd and start to do something preparatory for themselves?
I agree, there is plenty blame to distribute here; I believe every player in this hurricane drama had/has some degree of fault. I do not absolve the government for its disabled and delayed response after the storm had passed. If there is any truth to the allegation that the agencies responsible for assessment did not assess thoroughly and swiftly enough, then they should be held responsible for that failure.
But as far as preparation goes, I’m not so sure I agree that it was the agencies’ fault that residents were unprepared or poorly prepared. I have to agree with NEMA’s Lindsay Thompson that the public must bear some degree of responsibility for protecting themselves, their loved ones and their possessions. To suggest that government should be solely blamed for the citizens’ lack of preparation is unfair. Never thought I would say that on behalf of a wretched administration, but there you go.
Now, insofar as it was the responsibility of the authorities in Nassau and in the islands to ensure that shelters were not just opened but safe for refuge from the storm, I would further agree that those authorities are to blame if those shelters were not available to the people for their protection.
I further note (with agreement) the Inagua island administrator Louis Samuel Miller’s statements in a local news interview.
“We actually had no notice at all.”
“I moved in under my own initiatives ... my own intuition, so to speak.”
“When I saw the waves coming through on Wednesday, I said that it was time for us to put ... for me to put ... my committee together, and that is what we did.”
“But bearing in mind after I saw the velocity ... I realised the velocity of the wind and the waves, then we said this storm may come this way. That is when we really put everything into full gear.”
No one can be blamed for the speed at which Joaquin developed, but someone can be blamed or rebuked, as the case may be, for not taking seriously the deteriorating conditions any sooner than they did, particularly someone charged with disseminating instructions in the wake of an imminent hurricane landfall, and that includes residents and government alike.
V Alfred Gray - yes, Gray - says somebody has to take responsibility “if we find that signals were mixed”. If somebody doesn’t, I’m willing to wager that they, the powers that be, will find someone to bear the responsibility that is being tossed all around the place, and they will assign blame to whoever they choose or find most appropriate.
In addition to that golden nugget above, Gray has said “heads should roll” regarding inaction by authorities. And there is where it starts getting political.
Anything that points attention to someone else must be a welcome change for Gray. He, Gray, says there should be responsibility and accountability? Gray, the very same one caught up in the Mayaguana administrator/judicial interference scandal void of accountability?
In the post-Joaquin rhetoric, even Christie threw out a bone for anyone who would listen, saying, amongst other things, that satellite phones ... “quite frankly, they ought to have been there”.
I maintain that it is fairly easy for an experienced politician to feign shock and abhorrence at things that are not in place, which, by their being out of place presents negative implications for those in authority or at least casts an unfavourable light in their direction. Expressing sympathy is the only way to look good under that light and microscope.
When Christie takes this road, which is neither the high nor the low road, I tune out. Come to think of it, I tune out of most things he says that ramble on, for good and obvious reason.
Christie emphasises that open lines of communication are necessary for safety in the storm, but even with open lines people do not effectively communicate. Good communication is not a distinguishing characteristic of Bahamian people. And even if they are able to communicate, their assurances need to be made accurately, comprehensively and regularly, otherwise any effort at communication (before, or after a storm) is redundant.
I believe that the mysterious National Development Plan should seek to incorporate a newer and more considered development strategy for the Family Islands in conjunction with New Providence, keeping in mind that this is an opportunity to practice the development strategies on the template, if in fact this template/plan will still be relevant by the time we see or hear its contents, or by the time any of it is implemented.
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