By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Cabinet minister last night predicted it will cost “billions and billions” to rebuild Abaco and east Grand Bahama’s infrastructure after the “awesome challenge” laid down by Hurricane Dorian.
Desmond Bannister, minister of works, told Tribune Business that “the figures are huge” although he declined to provide details ahead of further Cabinet discussions on reconstruction efforts in the category five storm’s aftermath.
Disclosing that Melanie Roach, director of public works, and her staff were “looking at everything very comprehensively” when it came to restoring public infrastructure in the storm-ravaged islands, Mr Bannister said his ministry was in the process of “making submissions to Cabinet” on the extra financing and resources required by itself and the state-owned utilities.
He revealed that Bahamas Power & Light (BPL) faces the prospect of having to replace 3,000 electricity poles going northwards from Marsh Harbour towards Cooper’s Town, and said the government was assessing whether the utility’s transmission and distribution rebuild should “take another format”.
This likely alludes to placing electricity cables underground as opposed to the previous overhead lines, in a bid to protect them from destruction in future storms, as Mr Bannister warned The Bahamas against adopting a “rebuild as a matter of course” approach to Dorian restoration.
Conceding that Family Island development has suffered from a “lack of planning, lack of inspection and lack of code enforcement”, the minister said policy reviews and decisions now needed to be made on building code strengthening and designating where Bahamians can build.
“We’re looking at the figures now, and the figures are huge. Quite frankly, Mr Hartnell, it’s going to be billions and billions of dollars,” Mr Bannister told Tribune Business of the likely infrastructure rebuilding costs in Abaco and east Grand Bahama. We’re actually looking to make certain submissions to the Government with respect to the manner in which we proceed...
“We’re looking to make submissions with respect to the work we have to do at the Ministry, the work we have to do at the Water & Sewerage Corporation, and the work we have to do at Bahamas Power & Light. All of them. We have to put them all before the Government and see what may cost.”
He added that the Ministry of Works had “some idea of what that may cost” in terms of the clean-up phase, which will be followed by repairs and restoration to critical infrastructure - much of which is likely to have been uninsured.
Roads, docks, bridges, airports, healthcare, water and electricity systems are just some of the essentials that have to be revived, and Mr Bannister said: “Anything you could think of we’re going to have to deal with. I can say this: The director of works has been looking at everything very comprehensively.
“We have some idea of the costs, but I can’t say what those are as these are matters that have to go before Cabinet, and it would be wrong for me to publicly discuss anything I intend to take to Cabinet.” The latest Cabinet meeting was held last night.
Hurricane Dorian struck at a time when the Government has been restraining capital spending on infrastructure projects to help it rein in the fiscal deficit and meet the targets set out in the Fiscal Responsibility Act.
The devastating storm has likely dealt a fatal blow to that strategy, and exacerbated an existing infrastructure deficit that was branded “unquantifiable” when Mr Bannister spoke to Tribune Business in June 2019.
He revealed then that the Ministry of Works’ $93.736m capital works budget for 2019-2020 was $100m less than desired, with the former sum some $27m below the prior year’s allocation.
And, with $53.512m of the $93.736m earmarked for projects already underway, there was less than $40m available to tackle further physical infrastructure needs that are replicated across virtually every island in The Bahamas.
Dorian is likely to force a sky-high increase in such allocations, especially since the cash-strapped, loss-making Water & Sewerage Corporation and BPL will simply be unable to finance the restoration needs from their own resources.
Mr Bannister conceded as much, telling Tribune Business yesterday: “As you know, the Government currently subsidises Water & Sewerage. The rates you pay for water are grossly under the actual costs. Whatever challenges we have with water are going to have to be covered by the Government.”
While the European Union (EU) had provided some financial assistance for the water and telecommunications recovery, the minister added that the Government would still have to make “some critical investment in water” - especially on Abaco.
As for BPL, Mr Bannister said the timing of the $450m-$550m rate reduction bond issue that will refinance BPL may not align with the need for Abaco’s immediate energy system rebuild. As a result, the capital raise was unlikely to occur in time to finance Dorian restoration.
“We are more of that mind,” he added. “With BPL, we have to make some policy decisions and that is also before Cabinet as to where we go with that.” While BPL represented “the lowest hanging fruit” for Abaco’s restoration “going south from Wilson City”, as the electricity grid in that area was least damaged, Mr Bannister said the Government was assessing other options for elsewhere on the island.
“Going north through Marsh Harbour to Cooper’s Town is a bigger challenge,” Mr Bannister told Tribune Business. “BPL has some 3,000 poles there that have to be replaced or some decision taken as to whether the infrastructure takes another format.
“We have estimated pricing on the different types of options we have, and will determine as to how funding will be provided.” This appears to indicate that the Government is considering whether to place BPL’s grid infrastructure underground to better protect it from future hurricanes, although Mr Bannister declined to comment further.
“It’s going to be an awesome challenge,” he told Tribune Business of Dorian restoration. “One of the things we are looking at, I can tell you, is proper planning. What has happened in the Family Islands generally is there’s been a lack of planning, lack of inspections and lack of code enforcement.
“Our [building] code was last revised in 1997, and prior to that required protection from 120 mile per hour winds. Now it’s up to 150 miles per hour. A policy decision has to be made with respect to wind speed, with respect to flood plains, and with respect to water levels. There are a number of challenges we have to look at with moving ahead and planning.
“What I’m saying is this cannot just be rebuilding as a matter of course. There has to be planning in the process, significant inspections, and there has to be enforcement. The Ministry of Works is busy looking at these aspects.”
Mr Bannister said he was unable to predict how long infrastructure rebuilding in the Dorian-ravaged areas will take. Pointing to the logistical difficulties facing the recovery efforts, he said an immediate problem facing BPL and Water & Sewerage repair crews was a lack of suitable accommodation in both east Grand Bahama and Abaco.
“The whole process is not a process that should be rushed,” he added. “We have to restore to Bahamians the dignity of life and dignity of accommodation as quickly as possible, but it’s not an overnight process.”