By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Abaco can become “uniquely distinct” as the Caribbean “model” for how storm-ravaged communities are rebuilt, the Chamber of Commerce’s chief executive argued yesterday.
Jeffrey Beckles told Tribune Business that Hurricane Dorian’s devastation had “provided a clean slate” to develop a “new Abaco” that employed sustainable living practices “catapulting the island will into the future”.
Looking beyond the immediate destruction, wrecked livelihoods and vast clean-up operation that is required, Mr Beckles said the restoration effort provided opportunities for the introduction of renewable energy and recycling technologies that - to-date - The Bahamas has just flirted with.
He added that the extent of the post-Dorian rebuild, which will cost hundreds of millions - if not billions - of dollars also provided The Bahamas with the chance to further slash a national unemployment rate that continues to hover stubbornly around ten percent.
Mr Beckles argued that Abaco would still lack a sufficient workforce for the reconstruction effort even if 100 percent of its pre-Dorian population returned en masse, but emphasised that the psychological welfare of the island’s residents will now assume critical importance given how vital they are to its revival.
And, warning that reconstruction in both Abaco and Grand Bahama’s East End will be akin to an “extended marathon”, the chamber chief preached that patience was essential if The Bahamas wanted to win “a first prize” for building back better and stronger.
“Dorian has provided a clean slate in waste and waste management, energy and shipping,” Mr Beckles told Tribune Business, looking to Abaco’s future and that of the wider Bahamas.
“The upside is that we have an opportunity to figure out how to do this well. These are real issues. Wouldn’t it be great if Abaco was greater than before? Wouldn’t it be great if we had solar as a new source of energy? Wouldn’t it be great if the ‘new Abaco’ was recycling its trash?
“That alone would catapult Abaco well into the future, and it could be used as a model for other islands, particularly New Providence, because if that storm [Dorian] had come five degrees further south you and I would not be having this conversation today,” the chamber chief executive continued.
“We have the opportunity to do something uniquely distinct and have The Bahamas set aside as a country that not only impacts local communities but regionally in terms of how we rebuild.
“When you start looking at what we have to do in Abaco and East End in Grand Bahama, that not only impacts how we prepare Nassau, Exuma, Eleuthera, Andros, Long Island and Acklins, but it equally impacts what happens in the Caribbean where it can be used as a model.”
Mr Beckles said the Chamber was having “very healthy discussions” with the Government, Abaco and Grand Bahama private sectors and others in terms of developing a forward-looking strategy for the recovery and restoration effort to come.
“One thing that has to be exercised here is patience,” he told Tribune Business. “It’s going to be a marathon, not a sprint. It’s an extended marathon. One thing very clear is that we will not rebuild as it was.
“If we want a first prize for best practice, at the end of the day in Abaco, Freeport and Grand Bahama’s East End, it requires patience to ensure we’re doing the right thing in the right time and space.
“I couldn’t give a timetable as to how long this will take. It’s going to be a sustainable, long-term effort. It’s not a one to two year quick fix in terms of restoration. There are things that can be done in 30 days, 60 days and 90 days, one year, but it’s not going to be a quick fix.”
Mr Beckles voiced optimism that “the vast majority” of Abaco’s population will return if basic living conditions are provided despite the island’s extensive depopulation in Dorian’s immediate aftermath. The longer their return is delayed, the more likely it is that they will find jobs and housing in both New Providence and the US.
However, the Chamber chief executive added: “The good thing is that while there are some people who are not going to go back, and we get that, you won’t find that being the vast majority. Once we get that man camp [tent village] established and built, you’ll find Bahamians - particularly Abaconians - willing to go back and be part of the rebuilding process.”
With 1.5 billion tons of Dorian-related debris needing to be moved, Mr Beckles said entrepreneurs and persons previously employed in professions such as waiters would need to get their hands dirty and engage in manual labour to kickstart the recovery process.
“As the restoration and rebuilding effort accelerates, you will see it fan out into specific areas,” he added of the jobs available on Abaco, with employment prospects and their variety increasing as economic activity picked up.
“We see it as having tremendous impact on future employment,” Mr Beckles said of the rebuilding process, “because I tell you: What it will take to restore Abaco, even if you had the entire resident population return, it would not be enough in the long haul to put it back together.
“That creates a tremendous opportunity to dip even further into the unemployment ranks, and put people back to work. That’s our hope and objective, and we will keep pushing on that line. Let’s hope it works out that way.”
Mr Beckles added that it was “important that we do not overlook the extension of the humanitarian effort” and ensure Dorian victims’ psychological, emotional and mental well-being is taken care of.
“People are critical to our success economically, so we have to get them rolling,” he said.