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The politics of disaster

A Bahamas flag flies tied to a sapling, amidst the rubble left by Hurricane Dorian in Abaco, Bahamas, Monday, Sept. 16, 2019. AP

We knew it would not be long.

The political fisticuffs have started in the wake of what has turned out to be the strongest hurricane on record to hit The Bahamas.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis announced the establishment of a new ministry to handle disaster preparedness, management and reconstruction. The new ministry will operate out of the Office of the Prime Minister.

Minnis also announced the appointment of Central Grand Bahama MP Iram Lewis as minister of state in that ministry.

Questions were naturally raised about added bureaucracy in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian given that the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) already has statutory powers and ought to be performing much of the same functions outlined for the new ministry.

On September 11, the prime minister announced that as a part of the recovery efforts, he has appointed veteran civil servant Jack Thompson and former National Insurance Board Director Algernon Cargill as hurricane relief and redevelopment coordinators in Abaco.

Senate President Kay Forbes Smith is leading relief efforts in Grand Bahama, Minnis said.

While objective observers recognized NEMA’s woeful unpreparedness for a major hurricane, the prime minister said on Monday he has confidence in NEMA, but added that it will be restructured.

On Sunday, the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) said it is deeply concerned about the “lack of leadership in articulating a clear direction and vision through a practical policy response by the government in the aftermath of the country’s latest natural disaster and crisis.”

“NEMA is the statutory authority and executing mechanism to manage all national emergencies,” the PLP said.

“We do not agree that another layer of bureaucracy with another political head will solve the myriad of challenges facing the government in this national effort.

“The substantive political head is the prime minister who must do his job. NEMA must be structurally and functionally transformed from a coordination body to a fully resourced corporate sole entity.

“It has been almost three weeks since Dorian made landfall and left, and the government does not appear any more prepared to deal with this national emergency than it was in the days leading up to and after Dorian’s landfall.”

The PLP made the point that one of the leaders of the legislative branch of government (the Senate president) is now subject to the executive. 

These happen to be good points.

There is nothing wrong with constructively criticizing the government or offering sensible suggestions in the wake of a national tragedy. 

The government alone does not have the answers. 

The gloves are off

Not surprisingly, the Free National Movement (FNM) applauded the prime minister for his “vision” in creating the new ministry.

“Rather than relying on outside help and foreign aid, our Prime Minister Minnis is leading the way in restoring Abaco and Grand Bahama — planning, executing and ensuring our government has the tools and autonomy it needs to manage a recovery effort as efficiently as possible,” the party said on Sunday.

But that statement in itself demonstrates that the party does not understand all that is playing out as it regards relief, recovery and planned reconstruction efforts. 

The point here is that Minnis and the government are not doing it alone.

The Bahamas, thankfully, is benefiting from a tremendous amount of foreign aid. The prime minister, himself, has repeatedly pointed to all the help we have been getting from our foreign partners and friends.

He only recently met with United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, who acknowledged that The Bahamas cannot bear the cost of reconstruction alone.

Minnis himself said, “Because of the massive devastation, The Bahamas could not, and cannot face this tragedy alone. We have mobilized the entire government to meet this challenge, in partnership with the international community.”

The United States government was particularly helpful in its quick response and in providing resources. We can use all the outside aid we can get as we do not have the financial resources to restore lives and rebuild communities. 

The irony in the FNM’s statement is that it accused the PLP of using misinformation, distraction and political rhetoric rather than focusing on how they can help the Bahamian people throughout the recovery.

The FNM then went on to accuse the PLP of being corrupt, feeding into a perception that helped it sail to power in 2017.

We use the FNM’s statement to make the point that it is shameful that at a time like this, political parties are unable to rise above the pettiness and the mudslinging and embrace a spirit of bipartisanship in the face of a national tragedy.

The FNM claims the PLP “has not matured since [Hurricane Matthew] as today they continue to look for opportunities to score political points rather than focusing on doing their jobs during what is one of the most trying times our nation has faced in its history”.

It goes on to accuse the PLP of political posturing. 

The release of the FNM’s statement means that the gloves are off. The PLP has waded into the mess.

It shot back on Monday, stating: “So the lousy, no good, lazy good for nothing FNM has now opened their sick mouths to blow smoke up the prime minister’s derriere after his useless appointment of a minister for disaster. They have risen from the grave to issue a statement today, patting themselves on the back.”

The PLP added, “The lousing FNM in their silly statement today attacking the leader of the PLP should realize that Brave Davis is not the issue here.

“The government’s performance is the issue. The stench of death hangs over Abaco weeks after the storm and there is no plan in sight. The issue is that scores, if not hundreds of people are dead and unaccounted for when the government of the FNM knew or ought to have known that these people should have been evacuated before the storm.”

The PLP said Davis extended the hand of harmony and peace but the prime minister “knocked it away”.

“The PLP used its own resources to help storm victims, visited them in their homes. No one heard from the lousy FNM as a party and now they have the cajones to open their mouths to attack the leader of the PLP who has been generous to a fault,” the statement said.

It’s unfortunate that we have gotten to this point at a time when a spirit of national unity should prevail. It is also so insensitive to the many families who still do not have the bodies of their loved ones, many of whom were washed away by the raging storm surge or crushed by crumbling homes, churches and other buildings where they thought they’d be safe in the storm.

FNM Chairman Carl Culmer and PLP Chairman Fred Mitchell have traded jabs many times in the past. Childish, petty insults will likely continue over the handling of Dorian’s preparation and aftermath.

 Dropping the ball

Politicians are doing what politicians do, we suppose. They attack at the most ill-conceived times.

In opposition, Minnis did it too.

A Tribune article carried on October 12, 2016 under the headline “Minnis criticizes PM on storm response” stated: Leader of the Opposition Dr. Hubert Minnis yesterday called the prime minister’s response to some of the challenges on New Providence in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew irresponsible and questioned the need to appoint Minister of Labour Shane Gibson coordinator for the Hurricane Matthew relief and recovery efforts.

“I was not impressed,” he said at a press conference.

“I thought the government dropped the ball in dealing with the storm. The precautionary methods were not taken. Government knew that such a storm was coming. How can you afterward be asking for trucks, volunteers, etc.? All of that should have been done in advance.

“You knew the storm was coming, you knew the strength of the storm, you knew the potential damage, you knew what was going to happen to the south, and therefore they should have had already, trucks, chain saws, garbage bins, dumpsters all lined up to deal with [the aftermath] appropriately.”

Minnis also suggested the Christie administration would use money donated to NEMA as a slush fund.

Minnis said the then government was not “aggressive enough” in ensuring people were out of the danger zone ahead of the storm.

In 2016, the FNM leader pledged that the FNM government would implement mandatory evacuations under similar circumstances.

“The FNM is more concerned with safety and quality of life and we would do whatever is necessary to ensure that the Bahamians are safe and lives are safe,” Minnis said.

Months after the FNM was elected to office, Hurricane Irma struck. Fortunately, there was no loss of lives in Irma and none in Matthew.

After Irma, the Minnis administration still did not bring a mandatory evacuation bill. 

On September 10, 2017, Minnis said his administration intends “to table a mandatory evacuation bill when the House of Assembly meets on Wednesday”. Again, that was more than two years ago. 

“I think it is essential that we have a mandatory evacuation [law],” Minnis said.

“Not only that, we must have a manual for evacuations so that we will have guidelines. A storm may be a Category 1 or 2, and that may not be a requirement for evacuation. But we would look and a requirement may be a Category 4 or 5. Those are the things that have to be discussed.

“But you must have a manual so that you don’t cherry-pick. We’ve learned quite a bit from this procedure; so therefore our manual will tell us how individuals are dispatched, collected and how the centers are set up. I think this was a very great learning experience.”

No bill was ever brought.

Minnis also told Parliament in September 2017 that he has asked Minister of Public Works Desmond Bannister to fully review The Bahamas’ building codes, lamenting that many homes as well as government buildings have not been built to code in the past.

“We need buildings that can withstand an Irma. We cannot be in the business of saving money over saving lives,” he said.

Minnis added that he has asked NEMA to produce recommendations on how both New Providence and Grand Bahama can be fortified to withstand Category 5 hurricanes.

He suggested that task will be a role for NEMA from the end of hurricane season in November until it begins in June 2018.

Again, there was no action taken in this regard that we are aware of.

Maturity

Now that we have been hit by the “big one”, Minnis is promising such legislation again.

Perry Christie, the former prime minister, also promised legislation.

He spoke about “teachable moments” in the aftermath of Hurricane Joaquin in 2015.

Still, nothing was done to restructure NEMA and to prepare the nation for the inevitable monster storm.

And now we are at a point where the governing and opposition parties are finger pointing, name calling and feeding divisiveness.

This is sad.

In opposition, politicians seek to destroy the government. In government, politicians seek to destroy the opposition.

They are at many points disingenuous in their actions and statements.

Now is a time for healing, for harmony, for truth and for leadership Bahamians everywhere can believe in, or can at least respect. 

Now is not a time for deciding who is loyal and who is not, for saying and doing things for one’s political party to get over.

We are in desperate need of political maturity and strong leadership that extends a hand beyond political lines.

Dorian killed many residents.

Politics, meanwhile, is killing the country.

Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of the Nassau Guardian.

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