By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
AS fears within the business community swell over the government’s ability to shoulder the massive losses incurred from Hurricane Matthew, Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation Chairman Gowon Bowe yesterday cautioned officials against sensationalising the damage estimates.
Mr Bowe explained that the enormous price tag, an estimated $600 million, attached to hurricane damage was a catch-all figure that did not take into account insurance coverage or that the government was not responsible for the total restoration of residences and businesses.
He was responding to concerns from second homeowners in Bimini, Andros and Abaco, who fear that the massive undertaking will overwhelm the government and leave the country vulnerable to increased state-funded investment or concessionary lending from China.
“I think that dollar amount is what drives it [fears],” Mr Bowe said, when contacted for comment.
“I think the government should be clear on what its commitment is in respect to the restoration. It always sounds sexy to say a billion dollar loss, but it’s just like it is in our private lives, you have to be very careful about what looks too good to be true.
“Whilst that sounds so elaborate and so demanding, what they should be saying is let’s break this down to what is necessary for the government to spend and over what period of time. The other side of it is actually when this has to happen, it’s all being acted as if everything has to happen tomorrow. And in reality it is really the survival mode first, which is relief to make sure people have food, water, and basic covering over their heads and clothing. The second stage is a steady progress to restore the essential services and what I would call essential government infrastructure, the passageways and roads.”
He added that the third phase could likely go on for an extended period of time, and entails restoring infrastructure in the rest of the business community and social standards.
“There should not be a phobia about who takes over because of a need to restore devastation,” Mr Bowe continued, “not if the government is prudent and takes its stewardship seriously.”
“If you said I have to find $800m today and the only person available to do so were a state-run organisation, then there is a significant threat because that may seem enamored or infatuated. However if I say a significant amount is going to be picked up by insurers, a portion picked up by donors, then I can borrow as and when I need funds to restore things, starting with essential services and then moving on to auxiliary elements.”
Giving a conservative estimate based on information gathered from businesses in Andros, Mr Bowe said he expects the value of damage to cap at $5 million from the private sector.
He pointed to Rebuild Bahamas, a Chamber initiative that spent $573,926 helping to reconstruct or restock businesses in five islands and refloat fishing vessels in the southern Bahamas devastated by Hurricane Joaquin. The fund has now turned its focus to assist with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Matthew.
“The business community has to take responsibility for saying that when I’m in business, there’s a cost of doing business,” he said. “When I’m making profits I don’t expect the government to dip its hand into my pockets to take taxes out, so there has to be a balance when I run into hardship that I can’t dip my hand into the government’s pockets when I haven’t made many deposits.”
One such business is Knolls Landing, a bonefishing lodge owned by Diane Knoll in Pleasant Harbour, Andros. Some 90 per cent of the lodge’s structures have been damaged but the business was not insured. A Gofundme page, set up on October 20 to solicit donations, had raised $3,270 of its $100,000 goal up to press time last night.
One homeowner on the island said: “(Diane) doesn’t have the money to rebuild. She’s stuck; she’s going out of business. The government is overwhelmed; they have not invested or saved for a rainy day. Lowe’s Sound is gone; those people have to be relocated. Nicholls Town, it’s wiped out, it’s gone, it’s history.”
“I don’t see how government will pull out of this.”
He continued: “I think you’re going to see China step in and say look we’ll bail you out, but we want this, this, and this. I don’t think that’s a good idea. Mark my words we’re going to see a Chinese aircraft carrier.”
The second homeowner pointed out that the state-owned China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) is the contractor for the $39 million Abaco port. And privately-owned, Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa, is the major investor in Freeport through the Freeport Container Port, Grand Bahama Development Company (DEVCO) and Freeport Harbour Company.
Speaking of Grand Bahama, the expat said: “I think that you will see an exodus of people leaving Freeport. What’s left for them? These people don’t have the money to rebuild, when they did after the last time [Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne] they didn’t do it properly because they didn’t have the money.”
According to Bahamas Power and Light, full restoration was reached in Andros on Monday.
BPL’s Corporate Communications Manager Arnette Ingraham yesterday explained that some areas - similar to New Providence - require approval from the Ministry of Works before power can be restored. She noted that while there were still customers in Andros with individual service issues, the company’s network has been rebuilt.