By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Deputy Chief Reporter
A SPOKESMAN for the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) has defended the organisation against criticisms of its response to Hurricane Dorian, insisting that officials are pleased with their efforts so far.
Last night, NEMA said that 3,500 people have been evacuated to New Providence from Abaco and Grand Bahama - although that number does not include people evacuated by private groups.
NEMA spokesman Carl Smith said yesterday while there were several challenges that hampered the response, situations improved as essential services also improved; the expectation was for more improvements in coming weeks.
Former Attorney General Alfred Sears was among those criticising the response.
He said that there has been a collapse of critical functions of the state in the aftermath of the hurricane, and insisted that a complete overhaul of the country’s disaster preparedness plan is needed. He said the existing plan failed to be adequate enough to respond in the time of need.
As a result, Mr Sears said there has been a delay in evacuations and some bodies of the dead remain uncollected.
But at the centre of it is the lack of adequate preparedness, Mr Sears said.
International media reports as well as those on the ground in the affected islands have criticised the government’s response saying not only was relief slow but insufficient in some quarters, there were also concerns of residents that Bahamians officials were not promptly visible in all affected areas.
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, there were also complaints from some in Abaco and Grand Bahama that more food and water was needed in remote areas.
For Mr Sears, what took place after Hurricane Dorian pummeled Abaco and Grand Bahama carries personal significance.
“I have had to be involved in the evacuation of my niece and her four children and my brother and his wife and his three children,” Mr Sears told this newspaper. “There has been a collapse of certain critical functions of the Bahamian state, the government, because under international humanitarian practices after any disaster, the first order of business is to deploy all of the national assets to evacuate people out of a condition of disaster and to use the national assets, that is our national airline.
“Every mail boat operating in The Bahamas is subsidised by the Bahamian government so all of the mail boats should have been impressed by the government to immediately evacuate people out of Abaco and out of Grand Bahama. That is those who wanted to leave.
“We’ve seen up to seven days and even now the president of the BUT has put out an appeal for teachers in Fox Town, Abaco and we have bodies under buildings and in the water because you have people still on the ground to be evacuated and you have not had a systematic rescue and recovery effort as yet.
“So what we have seen is that in the collapse of the government’s quick response using its assets to evacuate, we’ve had to rely on private charters, people in Abaco and this is what is so heart wrenching, people have had to rely of private charters and volunteer sea craft and airplanes to evacuate out of what is a disaster area and I think in that regard there has been a complete collapse of the state.
“Government agents should have been at all of the ports in Eleuthera, in New Providence, in Grand Bahama processing the evacuees in terms of their identities, the contact of the family members they were going, their contacts, because we are now faced with a situation where we have tons of relief supplies coming in and persons for whom they were intended are scattered in the United States, in New Providence and on other islands and there is no database where we can ensure in a quick timely manner that the generosity of the civil society and the international community will reach the victims in a timely manner to alleviate their misfortune.”
The government has said it is maintaining a database of evacuees, but Mr Sears’ point was that not all evacuees have been accounted for as some have left the affected islands privately.
He said evidence of government’s poor preparedness was seen in the call for personal watercraft as flooding impacted many and prevented rescue efforts.
“I would not say that the government did not have a plan in place, the plan was not adequate because in the middle of the hurricane we see some of the big trucks that had been assembled as rescue vehicles flooded.
“In other words the emergency organisers were calling for jet skis and life vests. Clearly then we know we are dealing with water and tidal surges and so on. Was there an adequate supply of jet skis and watercraft since we knew and it was projected there would be tidal waves and surges?”
When asked about these kinds of complaints during a press conference yesterday, Mr Smith defended NEMA’s efforts in the wake of Dorian.
He said: “I am satisfied that NEMA with its partners is doing everything it can to move as effectively and as efficiently as it can given the circumstance. We are dealing with a disaster and I want to underscore that NEMA is the coordinating agency. We want to impress upon the public that they should channel their desire to provide support to NEMA so that they know what’s going on. But based on the information that we have and the systems that we have to put in place so that the situation does not deteriorate beyond what it is, we are satisfied that we’re doing what it is as best we can.
“We have coming on board additional partners with expertise so you will see an improvement in the situation as we move forward. But as we speak we doing the best we can with what we have.”
He said several challenges affected NEMA’s work following Dorian’s passage.
“As you would have known, this is the first time that this region has experienced a situation such as this and we the government would have had on Abaco and on Grand Bahama as an example, public officers they themselves were affected.
“You would be aware that we could not get persons to replace them because the ports were down, both the seaports and the airports were down and communication.
“So as soon as those things were up, we were able to replace them and supplement the services that they were providing so there was an ongoing improvement in what was happening as communication was brought on as the airports were opened things were improved.”
John Michel Clarke, chairman of the Disaster Relief and Reconstruction Committee, was asked about one complaint of a lack of drinking water at Rand Memorial Hospital in Grand Bahama. He said he was not aware of this claim, but said the challenges were great in Grand Bahama.
He said: “On the ground one of the challenges we had in Grand Bahama was that there was a serious breach of the roads along the eastern end of the island. That was compounded by an oil spill incident. We have moved resources to the eastern end of the island to repair the breach.
“What that effectively did, was that it cut off the eastern end of the island from receiving supplies and we had to ferry and airlift supplies and that invariably caused some delay.”
Previously, he said, officials were exploring every option, whether it was helicopter or boat, to bring constant relief to the affected areas.
In a statement last night, hospital administrator Shirley Williams responded to a Whatsapp video being circulated concerning a problem with availability of drinking water for patients and staff in Grand Bahama.
She said: “Up to this point, we have experienced no difficulty with providing water to patients and staff.
“In fact, prior to leaving last evening (Saturday), areas and persons were provided with a case each of water as several donations were made for the day.
“We think that this may have been started by a number of persons under the tent outside Emergency Room. Today this Outpatients care point which is usually manned by nurses and doctors was not staffed for services today (Sunday). These persons were provided water once a request was made.
“We are aware of no other gaps and will maintain vigilance on this point in the future.”
Moving forward, Mr Sears said a proper investigation is needed so the country could overhaul its emergency regime.
“We also need to look at how we designate shelters,” Mr Sears said. “We have to move away from using huge buildings that is a church without ensuring the structural integrity of these buildings because they are not built for shelter. They don’t have the structural certification.
“Clearly the severity of this hurricane was unanticipated,
but certainly even for hurricanes of lesser severity it is not unusual to see shelters that have been compromised.
“So we have to review our building code. We have to review the criteria that we use to designate a facility as a shelter and we have to begin more systematically to better apply the public infrastructure.”
He said schools should now be designed for the purpose of hurricane shelters and equip them with backup generators.
There must also be a collaborative effort to offer counseling for those who have experienced mental trauma and grief due to hurricanes, Mr Sears said.