By YOURI KEMP
Tribune Business Reporter
Abaco’s Chamber of Commerce president yesterday voiced fears that the imminent departure of non-governmental organisations (NGO) will leave a vacuum in post-Hurricane Dorian relief efforts.
Ken Hutton told Tribune Business “the biggest concern” for Abaconians now is that the non-profit relief groups and agencies, which have played a key role in clean-up and recovery initiatives following the category five storm’s passage, are “packing up” with no one to replace them.
He also expressed concern over the lack of clarity surrounding the government’s Dorian Economic Recovery Zones and their associated tax breaks, together with the absence of information on how the Disaster Reconstruction Authority will be structured.
“Rubicon’s last day is today and there is still a lot of work to be done,” Mr Hutton said of one major NGO. “This was Rubicon’s originally scheduled date to leave. They have been here to do what they want to do and they are packing. We are also hearing World Central Kitchen will be transitioning out of here next month. Yet again, this is just their scheduled time for departure and nothing has been done.”
While multiple attempts have been made to encourage NGO’s to stay and help beyond their target departure dates, Mr Hutton added: “When USAID (US Agency for International Development) pulled out we tried to get them to stay, but they have a certain amount of funds for a certain amount of time.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen. We are still struggling daily with the clean-up. The debris collection has picked up marginally but is nowhere near where they need to be. We need to get the clean-up ramped up.
“The debris clean-up is not near the level where it needs to be. There is still no sorting at the dump and that is the big issue. We keep hearing that there are plans to do this and that, but we are going on two-and-a-half months now.”
Besides the impending NGO departures, Mr Hutton said confusion remained over the value-added tax (VAT) exemptions and other tax breaks announced by the government to provide devastated homeowners and businesses with some financial relief as they seek to rebuild.
“We are still waiting for information on the Disaster Reconstruction Authority and how that will be set-up,” he added. “We understood that diesel fuel was supposed to be VAT free, but no one told the petroleum retailers and we are still paying VAT on diesel.
“It has been over two months since the exigency orders have been announced and there is still this confusion. There is still very little information on how do we access these concessions and services that government announced.”
The Disaster Reconstruction Authority Bill 2019 was tabled in the House of Assembly at the beginning of November, paving the way for the creation of the authority it seeks to give legal effect to. The prime minister pledged “it will remove the red tape too often associated with government processes, and should enable the reconstruction process to proceed as efficiently and quickly as possible.”
Mr Hutton, meanwhile, said: “The airport continues to be a main problem, and it is not open for international yet. It’s a start to have the airport open. There are a lot of second homeowners who have to get into Abaco from Nassau. If they can get in through Marsh Harbour they can start to get their properties back in shape easier.”
Mr Hutton told Tribune Business that last week’s re-opening of Maxwell’s Supermarket has been a major lift for remaining residents on the island. He did warn, however, that it was “difficult to assess stock levels” at this time considering that persons are only now beginning to move back to the island.
He added that his company, Premier Importers, was back open and selling building supplies. He said: “We are doing a lot of business, but there is still a lot of confusion involved in taking advantage of the exigency order.”