by Larry Smith
Soon after Hurricane Joaquin smashed into the southern islands a year ago, newspaper reports cited “critical weaknesses” in the national emergency management system, which “should worry us all.”
At the time, this column noted that "despite the millions of taxpayer dollars we spend on NEMA and BIS (not to mention the Office of the Prime Minister), those at the top feel little obligation to report to the people who pay those taxes about one of the biggest natural disasters to affect the country in recent times.”
This time around, things were a little different - perhaps because there is an election coming up. There was plenty of warning and information about the storm’s passage. Residents in low-lying areas were advised to evacuate, and the prime minister and other officials were more visible and forthcoming.
Despite the hundreds of millions in reported damage, Matthew was not as strong as initially feared. Things could have been much worse - especially on New Providence.
According to a Weather Channel recap of the storm, on late Wednesday (October 5), Exuma clocked a 119 mph sustained wind. Winds gusted to 85 mph in Nassau on Thursday, and Freeport recorded sustained winds of 100 mph with gusts up to 121 mph as the eye wall passed over Grand Bahama Thursday evening.
There was serious damage to homes, docks, trees and utilities on North Andros, western Grand Bahama and parts of New Providence. Although the amount of rain was less than expected, flooding from storm surge was significant in coastal areas.
In fact, the parts of New Providence that can expect to be affected by storm surge are well-known to government planners. A Category 5 storm could flood the entire island, except for the coastal and central ridges.
Too much of New Providence is just too low-lying, and sea levels are gradually rising due to climate change. Development takes place without regard for the potential consequences. The only solution is to restrict construction in very low-lying areas and require building designs that take account of flood risks.
As usual after a major hurricane, there has been a lot of waffling talk about facilitating supplies and donations, moving people out of low-lying settlements, legalising forced evacuations, and getting more prepared for the next disaster.
But the biggest news of this particular cycle was the government’s fast-tracked decision to borrow $150 million for reconstruction - on top of the $6.8 billion we already owe. This decision was taken without the slightest effort to provided accountability or justification of any kind.
Coming just before a critical general election, there will be an obvious temptation for the government (any government) to use these funds to its political advantage. So we strongly support calls for a cross-party committee or independent commissioner to oversee relief spending.
The Christie administration long ago destroyed any credibility it may have had in this regard. It won't co-operate with the Public Accounts Committee, it dismisses the damaging reports of the Auditor-General, and it deliberately hides important information on public affairs.
Supervision is even more important in the wake of the prime minister’s decision to politicise the relief process by placing a highly partisan minister in charge.
The law says the director of NEMA is in charge of disaster relief - why do we need a political commissar named Shane Gibson?