By FARRAH JOHNSON
MINISTER of Disaster Preparedness Iram Lewis said officials are increasing hurricane shelter capacity to ensure people in these facilities can maintain social distance amid the COVID-19 pandemic. His comments came during a virtual press conference on Sunday, where stakeholders discussed the country’s readiness for the hurricane season, which began yesterday.
As it relates to the preparation of hurricane shelters, Leonard Cargill, a representative from the Department of Social Services, said inspections in New Providence have already begun.
“Of the shelters we did inspect we found some needed adjustments,” he said. “We are also concerned about the spacing because of the COVID-pandemic (and) we want to make sure persons who go into shelters are safe.”
Mr Cargill said in view of social distancing guidelines, officials are looking at using schools and classrooms throughout the country as shelters.
Mr Lewis added: “We are increasing capacity because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We cannot expect to have any mass assembly only in auditoriums, gymnasiums and church halls, so we are using classrooms as a way of abiding by the COVID-19 protocols.
“In Grand Bahama, we are seeking to engage some 16 contractors this week to ensure that the schools in Grand Bahama are also ready to act as hurricane shelters. By starting this week, this will give us a six week headstart on where we were last year. Last year, we were preparing classrooms for school, but this year we are preparing classrooms to act as hurricane shelters. So yes, we will certainly have more rooms, we will be able to abide by the COVID-19 protocol and of course, we will never knowingly put any evacuees in a shelter that would be compromised.”
Captain Stephen Russell, head of the National Emergency Management Agency, said the entity plans to engage contractors to help them rectify some of the deficiencies that were outlined in a recent International Organisation of Migration (IMO) report, which warned that the country was not ready for the 2020 hurricane season.
The IMO recently completed a comprehensive assessment of official and unofficial emergency shelters in Abaco and Grand Bahama and found that most of them were unusable.
Referring to the report, NEMA spokesperson and permanent secretary Carl Smith said: “A primary focus of IOM is to provide for migrants. All of us know that in the Bahamas we have communities legal and illegal but communities, shanty-towns with numbers of undocumented migrants. So when one reads the IOM report, it must read it through those eyes.
“We never had sufficient sheltering capacity prior to Hurricane Dorian. Whatever sheltering we have, the government, through its various agencies, is doing all that it can in partnership with its partners locally and internationally, to provide the best sheltering that we can. We have to be pragmatic and realistic and sensible.”
As it relates to the state of readiness of other government entities, Brenda Colebrooke, acting director Department of Local Government, said the 23 administrative districts on the Family Islands are prepared for the 2020 hurricane season.
Bradley King, training and disaster management officer for the Ministry of Works, also said a team has been assigned to each of the government buildings for which the Ministry of Public Works is responsible. He also said teams have been assigned to each of the major islands or groups of islands to “conduct rapid, intermediate, and long-term damage assessments, as needed.”
Arlington Bethel, safety manager of the Water & Sewerage Corporation (WSC), said the company’s Abaco operation teams are working to restore their infrastructure to “equal to or better than pre-Dorian.”
He also said WSC has secured the services of several contractors to assist in the replacement of service connections throughout communities on the island.