By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Deputy Chief Reporter
PRIME Minister Dr Hubert Minnis yesterday described the Disaster Preparedness and Response Amendment Bill 2019 as one of many “bold steps” that will fundamentally change how the country prepares for and responds to hurricanes.
During debate on the proposed legislation yesterday, Dr Minnis said Hurricane Dorian’s devastation forced the country to look differently at major storms, adding that it could no longer assume that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event.
The amendment bill calls for imprisonment of one month or a fine of not more than $500 or both for people who refuse to evacuate once an order is given. A curfew can also be ordered when evacuation is ordered.
The prime minister can further make an order declaring relief from any disaster, which shall include a rebate of business licence fees, waiver of value added tax, exemptions from excise tax or tariff tax and waiver of any other fee, levy or tax payable under any law.
And in cases where people do not heed evacuation orders, the bill proposes to legislate that no first responder has the duty to risk his life to rescue or recover anyone until officials give the all clear.
As many people have been left displaced, Dr Minnis said trenching for the $6.4m “family relief centre” - a dome facility - in Abaco will begin this week.
“In light of such super storms we have to change the way we think, the way we act, and change our laws and mindsets in order to better protect human life,” Dr Minnis told the House during debate on the bill. “As prime minister I take the safety and protection of the Bahamian people as among my most solemn obligations.
“How we once prepared for and respond to hurricanes is no longer good enough in this era of super-storms. This is why my government has brought forward these amendments to the Disaster Preparedness and Response Act.”
He also said: “When orders are made with the advice of experts at our Department of Meteorology, it will be important for all Bahamians and residents to listen and to follow reasonable instructions intended to save lives.
“Remaining on the coast in the direct path of a storm is a bad idea. Remaining in a low-lying area prone to flooding is a bad idea. Remaining in a poorly built structure is a bad idea.
“Using good judgment and relocating to higher ground or a safer area or building before the storm as advise could save your life and that of your family.”
He again defended the government’s response in the aftermath of Dorian insisting “you can only arrive faster if we were in the Star Trek-era, ‘beam me up Scottie.’”
The prime minister accused the official opposition of politicising the situation even those that came down to life and death.
The accusation triggered a heated row between Dr Minnis and opposition leader Philip “Brave” Davis.
Mr Davis then stood on a point of order insisting the prime minister should withdraw the comment or explain the basis of the comments.
“The opposition Mr Speaker said we did not respond fast enough, our response was quick to the affected area to save lives and that we did,” Dr Minnis continued.
He added: “Even in the midst of the heartbreak of Hurricane Dorian, some were engaging in political gimmicks and games. Some were intent on displaying the flag and colour of a singly political party instead of a banner of unity and our national colours.”
Mr Davis insisted that Dr Minnis never included him in pre-hurricane preparation and maintained that the Progressive Liberal Party never wore its party colours in the aftermath of the storm’s effects in New Providence.
However, Dr Minnis quickly rebuffed this when he pulled out a cellphone that showed an image of Mr Davis walking into a flooded yard wearing a yellow raincoat. In the background was a pickup truck with a PLP flag attached.
The debate then spiralled into a shouting match between both members that only quieted when Speaker Halson Moultrie stood to his feet and ordered that some comments be removed from the record.
When he continued, Dr Minnis said the opposition had opposed for opposing sake, adding his suggestion for a curfew in Abaco to address security concerns had been shot down by them.
As it stands, Dr Minnis said Abaco was preparing to accept workers and residents as the rebuild effort begins in earnest and additional officers had been sent to tend to safety concerns.
He said: “The reconstruction ministry is in the process of preparing temporary housing for government employees on Abaco. One hundred RV trailers will accommodate 300 critical government personnel who will play an essential role in reconstruction and recovery.
“I note that a protocol is being determined for the relocating of individuals back to Abaco. Further a land site next to the Spring City subdivision on Abaco is being prepared to create the family relief centre, which will serve as temporary housing accommodations for families affected by this monster hurricane.
“The family relief centre will comprise 250 dome structures that will include plumbing drainage, a sewer system and electricity and each dome can accommodate between two and five individuals (with an) estimated cost of about $6.4m. Land is being prepared and trenching is beginning this week.”
Materials will arrive in Abaco next week for the construction of the centre.