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Leadership in a time of crisis

As Hurricane Dorian rapidly intensified, churning at a near snail’s pace through the especially warm waters of the northern Bahamas, turbocharging what became one of the strongest hurricanes ever in the Atlantic, the alarm intensified among meteorologists and government officials.

Bahamians went to bed with Dorian as a Category 4 hurricane. The next morning the country awoke, horrified at how quickly the storm had strengthened to a Category 5 storm, which was described as “unpredictable” and “unprecedented”.

Dorian continued to supercharge, becoming the “worst Atlantic hurricane in history to hit the northern Bahamas”.

Repeatedly, officials, including Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis, begged, pleaded and warned residents in much of Abaco and Grand Bahama to evacuate to safer areas. This included pleas in Creole to residents of The Mudd in Abaco by government officials and a number of Haitian pastors.

Warned by officials of the potential devastation of Dorian, Minnis’ face was struck with grave worry as he made a last impassioned and emotional plea to residents of various areas to evacuate immediately.

His plea was answered by a number of residents on Abaco, the Abaco Cays and Grand Bahama, who evacuated. Tragically, a number of others did not evacuate.

Then, for violent hours on end, Dorian savaged Marsh Harbour, a number of the Abaco Cays and swathes of Grand Bahama.

The Bahamas was now facing one of the gravest crises in its history, with likely the largest loss of life ever in a single incident. Chaos and panic metastasized. Scores were missing.

There was an unprecedented humanitarian and security crisis on the ground, with Marsh Harbour, the major populated area and capital of Abaco, obliterated, unrecognizable.

Surveying the devastation by helicopter on September 14, the 70-year-old UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres stated: “I’m horrified by the level of devastation.”

He emphasized: “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

By the time Guterres visited the country, the situation on the ground began to stabilize. The government of The Bahamas invited in international military personnel and deployed additional officers of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force and the Royal Bahamas Police Force.

 

Overwhelming

An overwhelming supply of food and water was deployed to affected areas. Field hospitals were set up. Many were evacuated to New Providence. The ministries of education, social Services and others are working furiously to assist evacuees.

But the massive problems on the ground abound. Hundreds are homeless. There are considerable public health challenges to address. Bodies are still being collected and many are missing. The devastation is mind boggling.

Guterres observed: “In some areas, more than three quarters of all buildings have been destroyed, hospitals in ruins or overwhelmed, schools turned into rubble. Thousands of people will continue to need help with food, water and shelter, and many more facing the uncertainties of the future after having lost everything,”

There were a series of serious mistakes and blunders made by various officials, with NEMA overwhelmed and struggling to deal with the magnitude of the crisis, assisted by foreign governments and agencies.

As with other countries devastated by a major natural disaster, some of the chaos was inevitable as is, unfortunately and distastefully, the needless, asinine and at times malicious negativity from some quarters fueled by social media.

The complex challenge we face is not solely responding to the devastation from Dorian. The added unpredictable burden is the existential threat of climate change, which has “turbocharged” hurricanes.

In a scant few years, hurricanes have laid waste to Ragged Island, much of Abaco and parts of Grand Bahama.

A devastating hurricane will most likely hit New Providence as well as other islands, with several of our major islands likely threatened at the same time by a monster storm.

Most Bahamians are finally waking up to the threat of the global climate emergency, which will present much larger and more complex challenges than the response to Hurricane Dorian.

The historic and foreseeable national challenge is how The Bahamas is to exist amidst rising sea levels and more powerful and intense killer storms, which some scientists believe are stalling and slowing down for longer periods because of changing weather patterns as a result of our heating planet.

 

Challenge

The greatest challenge of our time that we face as a country is a global crisis.

As the UN head noted: “First, the worst impact is on countries with the lowest greenhouse emissions; The Bahamas are a very good example of that.

“Second, it is the poorest and most vulnerable people in those countries who suffer most, and again, the same has happened with the communities in The Bahamas. And third, repeated storms trap countries in a cycle of disaster and debt.”

Guterres further noted of Hurricane Dorian: “The Bahamas cannot be expected to foot this bill alone. These new large-scale climate-related disasters require a multilateral response.”

The medium and long-term national response to Hurricane Dorian and the climate change emergency cannot be faced by government alone. The leadership required in this time of crisis must be shared by the private sector, NGOs, the religious community, private citizens and others.

When Hubert Minnis and the Free National Movement (FNM) were elected just over two years ago, the major issues were the economic downward spiral of the country and the perceived mass corruption and toleration for corruption by the Christie administration and the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP).

The economy was making progress, with unemployment coming down and modest growth that was continuing to improve.

Now Minnis faces the defining issue of his premiership and our time: rebuilding Abaco and Grand Bahama, and reordering how The Bahamas archipelago will more urgently respond to the grave challenge of climate change.

U.S. presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has written extensively on leadership and character. In “Leadership in Turbulent Times”, Kearns Goodwin explores how four presidents grew through personal adversity and led through periods of national crises.

Quoting Abigail Adams, the mother of President John Quincy Adams, the presidential historian observed: “It is not in the calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed… Great necessities call out great virtues.”

In a post after Dorian hit, former journalist Jessica Robertson wrote of the prime minister: “I truly feel that we have the best man at the helm of this unprecedented disaster. He has risen to the occasion and continues to act and speak in a way that makes me so proud.”

 

Rallied

In this time of crisis, many other Bahamians have rallied to support the country’s leader. A number of international leaders and observers have praised the prime minister for leadership in the aftermath of the hurricane, including the UN secretary general.

Marco Rubio, the senior senator from Florida, declared in a tweet: “Prime minister of Bahamas…is doing a great job under very difficult circumstances… He saved lives by swiftly deploying first responders & police.”

Kearns Goodwin has written: “Scholars who have studied the development of leaders have situated resilience, the ability to sustain ambition in the face of frustration, at the heart of potential leadership growth.

“More important than what happened to them was how they responded to these reversals, how they managed in various ways to put themselves back together, how these watershed experiences at first impeded, then deepened, and finally and decisively molded their leadership.”

Whatever one’s views on Minnis, he has demonstrated a tremendous capacity for resilience, both in his personal life and in politics, including his path to prime minister.

A few weeks ago at the beginning of the school year, Minnis surprised a student at Queen’s College with a visit on the first day of school for the new school year.

Some months before, the young man wrote a letter to the prime minister, noting how much the former admired him for his perseverance, which the young man found to be a source of inspiration.

Hubert Minnis now faces one of the greatest tests of his resilience and perseverance. His capacity for growth will be equally tested.

He has appeared calm and resolved in both public and private after the hurricane, and is demonstrating growth during the crisis. He will also need to exemplify steely courage, the greater virtue, which empowers the cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance and justice, as well as other virtues.

In the aftermath of the still-fresh crisis, only the most churlish and self-absorbed will fail to give our head of government the support that both he and the country need in the national interest, especially for the residents of Grand Bahama and Abaco.

In the medium and long-term, Minnis will be judged as a leader on whether he can summon the character and the capacity to give the country the sense of purpose and direction it needs to secure our national existence and survival.

[email protected].

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