By LEANDRA ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
DISASTER Reconstruction Authority officials say they are working to rectify all issues with Grand Bahama vendors used for its Small Home Repair programme after concerns were raised by suppliers about not receiving payments since the initiative was launched.
Minister of State for Disaster Preparedness Iram Lewis told reporters yesterday the agency was aware of all the concerns expressed by vendors and were in discussions about the way forward.
"The matter has been brought to our attention and it's being addressed," he said ahead of yesterday's Cabinet meeting. "As soon as we come to the decision with respect to the way forward, because like I said we are addressing it right now, because it's a matter of serious concern and it will be addressed."
Asked yesterday about the reasons for the delay in payments, the minister conceded that the delay was due to an influx of persons registering for the programme.
"It's not a stall," he said. "What happened is there was an influx... Everyone is coming in for support and we're trying to support as many as possible. In fact, we're trying to support everybody who is coming in and has a legitimate claim."
In February, the government launched the housing repair initiative to provide vouchers to people whose homes were damaged during Hurricane Dorian in early September 2019.
The DRA said as of August 30, more than 4,000 homeowners have registered for repair help.
Despite recent issues, Mr Lewis yesterday reiterated the DRA's commitment to ensure that storm victims receive as much help as possible in repairing their homes.
"We're approaching for 5,000 in terms of persons who would've registered," he told reporters.
"We have spent quite a bit of the funds towards reconstruction and debris management. It's been very taxing but understanding the importance of it as a responsible government, we will do our best to not only clean up our outer communities but do our best to ensure that persons are back in their homes."
With economic loss and infrastructural damage from Dorian estimated at $3.4 billion, Mr Lewis noted that the government is looking to partner with more organisations to further the relief efforts on both Abaco and Grand Bahama.
"We're looking for help," he said. "And we will do our best to ensure and like I said, the government cannot do it alone. Our international partners are here, and they are assisting cash and also in kind (donations).
"But get the word out -- we need help and we cannot do it alone. Persons out there need help. If we had the (means) to get the cheques and just take care of everyone, we would've done that but in the face of the fact that we have shortage, we're doing our best to be creative and we're trying to prioritise and priority is getting people in their homes."
He also noted the donations would be a major help in making up some of the shortfall from the Dorian pledging conference in January, which raised over $1bn in pledges. In March, officials revealed that only $364,000 was in actual cash and deposits.
Yesterday, Mr Lewis noted the amount had not changed.
"Of course, you know a lot of funds were pledged from the pledge conference," he said. "We got over $1.5 billion pledged. However, we received $364,000 in cash and deposits and so there is a serious shortfall and on top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of priorities shift from persons who would've made pledges," he added.
"We did not collect all that was pledged but we will do our best to accommodate Bahamians."
According to the minister, the government had also pledged to donate $10 million towards Hurricane Dorian relief efforts. However, due to COVID-19's impact, Mr Lewis said priorities had to be shifted.
"The government made a commitment last year to deposit $10m as a part of the overall initiative and the balance is supposed to come from pledges and private donors who would've earmarked specifically for reconstruction so again because of the pandemic, a lot of priorities shifted," he added.
Asked about the likelihood of the government still honouring that commitment, Mr Lewis replied: "Obviously, it adds to the challenge and even to those that would've pledged internationally, persons priorities shifted because of COVID-19 and the because of the economic downturn so again there's no way we could force anyone who made a pledge to give us our pledge.
"But we are hopeful that those who pledged would honour their commitment and as the pledge comes in we will use it in the community and I'll be able to account for it as I've done in the past how the funds have been expended."