By MALCOLM STRACHAN
THREE weeks after the most traumatic experience The Bahamas has ever faced we are still picking up the pieces for what may be a years-long recovery and rebuilding process. The physical and psychological damage experienced by the victims, as well as other citizens that have listened to the many nightmarish accounts of surviving Dorian is palpable.
After the initial shock and with an agitation to return to normal bubbling, there are still mixed views over the government – great support in some circles, questions over the government’s lack of readiness for the storm in others.
Since the establishment of NEMA in 2006 by way of the Disaster Preparedness and Response Act, The Bahamas has experienced a number of powerful storms. In recent years, the nation has been hit by Category 4 storms Joaquin in 2015 and Matthew the following year in 2016. In 2017, Hurricane Irma decimated Ragged Island with the unrelenting force of Category 5 conditions. Yet, two years later, we could not have imagined the level of devastation we encountered when Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the northern Bahamas with sustained winds of 185 mph, gusts of 220 mph, 36 inches of rain, and a 23ft storm surge – a power-packed recipe for disaster.
Certainly, there is no way we could have imagined the level of destruction we faced three weeks later as thousands of people are displaced and many feared dead.
However, while the citizenry cannot be completely absolved of the responsibility to keep not only themselves but also first responders safe, the challenge of making life-saving decisions rests in the hands of the government.
Following the tragic circumstances of Hurricane Irma, legislating mandatory evacuations was a talking point, but not acted upon. Surely, if the government was swift in following through with that policy, we could have been having a discussion that focused solely on urban planning and the rebuilding of the nation’s second and third cities.
However, because of the penchant to be reactive rather than proactive - which is a cultural norm rather than a Minnis administration problem - the government was caught flat-footed.
Of course, no one wants to accept the blame. Likewise, we shouldn’t only be focusing on who is wrong because it is counterproductive to what is truly needed – sustainable solutions. At the same time, government has to stand firm in the face of the justified criticisms they’re receiving. In the acceptance of their unpreparedness, there is much that can be harnessed from constructive analysis of their action, or lack thereof, prior to the storm.
During the prayer service last week to honour victims of the storm and pray for the nation, Anglican Bishop Laish Boyd called on the Bahamian people to stop blaming Prime Minister Minnis and the government for the lack of preparedness as well as the ongoing management of the post-storm recovery and rebuilding efforts.
He said: “Abaco, Grand Bahama and the whole Bahamas will not be the same for a long time. There are years of healing, settling and resettling, rebuilding and redevelopment before us. Entire local economies have to be rebuilt.
“However, right now the pain and anguish and suffering are great, for all of us. Blaming the prime minister – any prime minister – is not helpful. Lambasting the government – any government – is of no value. We need to come together, not be divided. Animosity and competition, fighting among ourselves and being at odds do not heal.”
Bishop Boyd is partially correct. Mudslinging, political drivel and non-solution-oriented criticisms are going to serve little purpose. However, we can’t afford to be in an environment where politicians are coddled in their protective bubbles away from criticism.
In all fairness, the government has given regular press updates on what is happening. But there is still a great lack of clarity on what the plan is going forward as it relates to rebuilding Abaco and Grand Bahama and recovering the remains of those we lost.
As families agonisingly wait for their loved ones’ remains to be retrieved, they fear the worst. With the death toll count reaching a slow crawl, many questions loom on what is taking so long.
Similar questions have risen regarding how seriously the government viewed Hurricane Dorian in the lead-up to its landfall on Abaco. During the prime minister’s address days before the storm hit, he cautioned those still on Abaco and Grand Bahama to heed his call to evacuate before the storm unleashed its fury on the ravaged islands. However, as the government is doing the best that it can, despite their efforts, NEMA still looks punch drunk as they try to navigate this situation.
Thus, questions circulating NEMA’s mandate are warranted.
What studies took place to identify the designated storm shelters as being structurally sound enough to withstand the strength of Hurricane Dorian? What trends have been followed by the Met Office and NEMA to ascertain if our disaster readiness and management policies were up to standard? Were any tests conducted to study what would be the maximum wind force our buildings could withstand?
One would like to have answers to these questions and more.
Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann has been one of many experts sounding the alarms on the increasing threat that this new era of superstorms can bring. In a 2018 article on Inside Climate News website, the urgency required by nations in hurricane zones to address their preparedness for the future of natural disasters was made very clear.
Referencing the devastation in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria took the lives of more than 4,600 people, Mann warned: “That’s not a coincidence. We have to recognise that by some measures, dangerous climate change isn’t some far-off thing we can look to avoid. It has arrived.”
In the same article, the importance of well-thought out recovery and restoration programmes was also stressed. Where we find the government mulling over the path forward, rebuilding these islands without taking into account how vulnerable the affected communities were to the storm’s strengths will be another fatal mistake.
Last week, Minister of the Environment and Housing Romauld Ferreira stated that the building codes have to be revisited and houses would need to be designed to withstand stronger winds.
As discussions regarding the country’s building code have emerged in the wake of tens of thousands of homes being flattened by Dorian, former Bahamas Construction Association President Leonard Sands believes that most Bahamians would be further priced out of the housing market.
“If you make it mandatory that houses now have to be built to deal with that category of strength, you’re talking about absolutely wiping out the construction centre because no one would be able to qualify for their homes,” he said. “The cost of the houses is going up already in places where you see the home building market is depressed because a lot of people can’t qualify anymore.
“The typical house that you could probably build in Marsh Harbour can probably be built at $130,000. To build for Category Five storms, people in the islands would be building three-bedroom, two bathrooms houses for a quarter million.”
No doubt there are many moving parts to this issue. However, there exists an opportunity to build a sustainable Bahamas. At the same time, we must not delude ourselves.
The process will take time and the costs will be substantial.
Hopefully, the government is considering the possibility of flood barriers, as storm surge was the most lethal component of Hurricane Dorian. But even that will require great research and planning.
Indeed, many international, as well as regional partners have displayed their generosity in our time of need. That being said, the importance of capitalising on the intelligence and other human resources that can help us rebuild a sustainable Bahamas is paramount.
As sure as the sun rises and sets, hurricanes are an annual reality for us. Likewise, our lives, as we’ve learned, depend on our preparedness.