Attorney General Carl Bethel.
By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Deputy Chief Reporter
ATTORNEY General Carl Bethel has confirmed the completion of draft legislation to allow for mandatory evacuations once parts of the country are under threat of natural disasters.
According to Mr Bethel, once passed, the provision will allow the prime minister through the National Emergency Management Agency to declare a local disaster area and make the necessary orders for mandatory evacuation.
The government is proposing to amend the Disaster Preparedness and Response Act.
“That legislation has been drafted and is ready to go,” Mr Bethel told The Tribune outside Cabinet yesterday. “It’ll be ready for October (when the House of Assembly resumes).”
Parliament is expected to meet on October 2.
“We did an initial draft and there were some constitutional concerns but we believe that the draft that we now have in hand subsequent to the hurricane has been crafted to avoid any constitutional entanglements.
“The sticking point was the use of the word ‘emergency,’ which has a peculiar meaning in the Constitution and reserves the power to the Governor General to make the proclamation of a public emergency and emergency powers.
“That’s an extraordinary step. It has not yet been invoked in our country and the drafting of the law is such as to avoid that constitutional complication.
“We’re ready to go with it.”
The Attorney General’s Office is also considering adding penalties for publishing erroneous information with the intent to incite fear, terror or anxiety.
“I think that we are also going to look at some other questions,” Mr Bethel said. “It’s an amendment to the Disaster Preparedness Act.
“We are going to have to look at some other aspects of conduct that have manifested themselves of late and perhaps make some additions to the proposed amendment to capture issues like printing false, maliciously untrue or publishing false or maliciously untrue statements or statements designed to incite fear terror or anxiety. So we’re going to look at that.
“Because there have been any number of manifestly false publications on social or other media and we as a people really cannot have a situation where in the name of free speech people are free to invent stories - in our view in some cases maliciously - in order to create fear, public hysteria, public concern and also to thereby disrupt the lawful actions of relief agencies and government and NEMA.”
He added: “This will allow the prime minister through NEMA to declare a local disaster area and in the context of that declaration of a local disaster or threatened disaster to make orders for mandatory evacuation.”
As Hurricane Dorian battered Abaco on September 1, Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis defended his administration’s stalled pace in presenting the legislation, telling reporters that no one could have anticipated the monster storm.
He pledged at the time that this would be a priority for the government.
Dr Minnis rejected assertions that cost was a factor for evacuations ahead of the storm.
“Cost nor communication is an issue,” Dr Minnis said at the time, “the NEMA team representatives and professionals went to those areas door-to-door asking individuals with boats available, waiting, asking them to evacuate and if they did not at least allow the children, women and elderly to leave - in spite of that they refused.”
Dr Minnis was asked whether there would be any attempts to rescue residents from vulnerable areas in Abaco, where roofs had been ripped off and cars overturned as Hurricane Dorian battered the island with winds more than 180mph. The storm was ongoing at the time.
“I’ll ask you a simple question,” Dr Minnis responded. “Winds of 180mph, I ask you tomorrow to go and rescue those people, would you go? I don’t think anybody that fool to go out there nor would I subject their lives to that especially when individuals were warned repeatedly to leave.”
Legislation to allow for mandatory evacuations was promised when Hurricane Irma threatened the country some two years ago.