Smaller Family Islands must embrace a new development model to prevent the Government from being saddled with an “unsustainable” storm repair bill every few years.
Pedro Rolle, the Exuma Chamber of Commerce’s president, told Tribune Business that the Bahamian taxpayer was currently having to cover multi-million dollar infrastructure restoration costs for sparsely-populated Out Islands every few years.
To reduce these costs, which typically involve roads, utilities and other reconstruction, Mr Rolle suggested the Government require residents of thinly-populated islands to live in just one settlement.
“The whole issue of these hurricanes, how they impact our nation and what goes on every year, should it force us to focus on how we develop our smaller islands,” Mr Rolle asked.
“It’s impossible for the Government every two years to invest millions of dollars to repair the infrastructure of those islands not as populated as others.”
That refers to the fact that many of the islands hardest-hit by Hurricane Irma, namely Ragged Island, Acklins and Inagua, are the same as those which were pummeled by Hurricane Joaquin in October 2015 - less than two years.
Joaquin’s repair bill was pegged at around $105 million, much of it relating to public infrastructure such as roads, docks and government buildings. Yet the sparsely-populated nature of those islands means the Government will never enjoy a return on such investment at a time when the Public Treasury is increasingly strained by the Bahamas’ fiscal crisis.
Many residents live in small, scattered communities that have to be linked by miles of roads and utilities, adding to the taxpayer’s burden.
“Maybe it’s time to consider, if people are going to live on Mayaguana, Acklins, that they live in a single community,” Mr Rolle told Tribune Business. “I really think the situation is unsustainable.
“They need to consider saying to people: ‘We’ll compensate you for your property, give you land, but we have to rethink with some of these Family Islands’. It’s just crazy. But that’s the way it is now.”
Mr Rolle said Exuma fared much better than expected during Irma, adding: “We had minimal amounts of rain, so the fear I had about the impact to farming did not materialise. That’s a blessing.”
He had told Tribune Business last week that Exuma’s farming progress could be washed “down the drain” if Irma scores a direct hit on the island.
Exuma had enjoyed its best year for agriculture since Mr Rolle returned to the island six years ago, with farmers enjoying bumper crops and growing new vegetables, but the Chamber president had expressed concerns the young could quickly desert the sector again if Irma’s wind and rain washed away seeds and crops already planted.
However, minor damage to some roofs and power outages in isolated communities was the most Exuma had to cope with.
Mr Rolle said Irma-related economic losses would come from visitors who were forced to cut short their vacations, as Sandals and other properties evacuated them from the island.
“Prior to the hurricane, Sandals and most of the hotels would have shipped out most of their guests,” he told Tribune Business. “The impact really is that persons who would have been here, their stay was cut short. And those persons intending to come didn’t come.
“From that perspective the economy was impacted, but these are things we can’t help; we have to live with that. Hopefully those persons who put off their holidays can reschedule. I know Sandals’ team have gone back in to open up the place, with a view to turning everything back to normal - or as normal as possible.”
Mr Rolle said that had Irma scored a direct hit on Exuma, the island would likely still be seeking “handouts” some six months later.
“I’m not even talking about what happened in Barbuda and the Leeward Islands,” he added, “but if we were impacted to the extent of Turks & Caicos we’d still be trying to gather our economy and ourselves up for the next six months.
“If we had any hit in Exuma near to what Turks & Caicos got, we’d be struggling and seeking handouts.”
Mr Rolle said such an impact, particularly if it affected Sandals and Exuma’s resorts, would cost the island the winter 2017-2018 tourism season and place its economy “a year behind”.