Wednesday, Jul 8, 2020

No shelter

A radar picture of Hurricane Dorian in September 2019. FILE

If a natural disaster were to strike Grand Bahama today, the government would have no approved shelters in which to direct and safely house the island’s tens of thousands of residents.

The same holds true for Hurricane Dorian-ravaged Central Abaco, as well as Salina Point, Acklins, and Spanish Wells three weeks into the June 1 start of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season.

The National Emergency Management Agency’s (NEMA) most recent shelter listing dated June 14 indicates as much, announcing approved shelters for all but these four locations.

The provision of safe and adequate shelter from disasters is a core responsibility of government, and mandatory evacuation adherence is now the law of the land.

Therefore, failure to ensure that shelters were ready in time for hurricane season, and failure to alternatively establish precise mechanisms for mass evacuations of impacted residents, is a gross dereliction of government’s duty to be in a full state of readiness to protect Bahamians and residents on these islands by June 1.

For storm-prone Grand Bahama and Abaco, where almost all Dorian-related fatalities occurred in areas that were not under an evacuation order, and where those who ventured into shelters wound up having to flee for their lives due to flooding and structural failures, this dereliction is especially glaring.

NEMA falls under the ministerial portfolio of the prime minister.

Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis ordered COVID-19 curfews and closures back in March, but these orders made no provision for the work of shelter readiness nationwide.

Of the activities deemed essential over the past three months, ensuring that safe and adequate shelters would be ready by June 1 ought to have ranked high among them.

NEMA’s June 14 circular said “evacuation plans should be considered” for Grand Bahama, Central Abaco, Salina Point and Spanish Wells.

Mass evacuations were a matter Perspective discussed with NEMA Director Captain Stephen Russell back in February. At the time, he indicated that preliminary discussions on where and how to evacuate thousands of New Providence residents, if need be, were underway.

But where would much of Abaco and Grand Bahama’s population be expected to evacuate to, and by what means?

Those who studied Hurricane Dorian’s impact on Grand Bahama would appreciate that a more southernly drift of the storm could have been even more catastrophic for the island than its northernly trek and subsequent two-day stall that put approximately 70 percent of the island under water.

It was the second time in 15 years that the island sustained the onslaught of a stalled storm system along its north shore, the first of which being Hurricane Frances which sat over the island for 30 hours and brought with it massive inland flooding.

When questioned on June 10 on the current state of shelters for the island, Russell said, “There are some 18 structures on Grand Bahama, churches in particular, that served as shelters for us in the past that all have varying degrees of issues…and the Ministry of Works is pushing full force to do the scope of work for those structures in Grand Bahama and some in central Abaco.”

He continued, “Funding has been made available to assist those churches. The ministry has advised that their scope of works would be available to us on Friday (June 12) [and] hopefully once we have the scope of works in hand, we can determine the quantity of materials that are available and we can find manpower to do the work, and be in full force probably by the third week in June.”

On June 15, a NEMA listing of proposed shelters for Grand Bahama was posted to the constituency page of State Minister for Disaster Preparedness Iram Lewis whose ministry, like NEMA, falls under the Office of the Prime Minister.

The list showed that of the 16 churches designated, quotes for works had been submitted for two.

During our February interview, Russell advised that storm surge models for the entire Bahamas were being developed through collaboration between the Bahamas Department of Meteorology and the Caribbean Community Climate Change Center (Five Cs).

He advised in our recent discussion that, “We haven’t covered much grounds with that. I had a discussion with our information committee — officials of the Meteorological Department and BNGIS (Bahamas National Geographical Information Systems) — [and] nothing much has advanced on those things.

“But the idea is, you know each hurricane based on their category generates certain surges.”

It is the classical idea, yes, but countries including the United States have moved forward with upgrading their weather modeling systems so as to provide improved forecasts on storm systems in the aftermath of superstorms like Dorian, which shattered many of its forecast models last year.

Despite grand promises of progress, one is left to question the extent to which increased bureaucracy through the formation of a Disaster Preparedness, Management and Reconstruction Ministry and its Disaster Reconstruction Authority has contributed to four islands being in various degrees of unreadiness for disaster as of June 1.

Still a work in progress

Though progress has taken place in the nearly 10 months since Dorian’s passage, much of Grand Bahama remains without potable city water; its electricity system is hampered due to flood damage; and the island’s only hospital has suffered yet another setback in the timelines for substantial post-Dorian repair work.

As such, the island is not in the state of readiness post-June 1 that most residents would have hoped, though they recognize all too well the extent of Dorian’s damage.

We questioned Philcher Grant, director of Group Corporate Affairs and Government Relations for the Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA), two weeks ago on the status of full island potability, the reasons for interruptions in water supply during recent island-wide blackouts and in what specific ways the Grand Bahama Utility Company (GBUC) has made its system more storm and flood-resilient in Dorian’s aftermath.

Grant did not provide a response to our questions.

The Grand Bahama Power Company (GBPC) did respond to our questions, however, on the reasons for recent blackouts and power interruptions that are uncharacteristic for the island, and that have occurred during periods including inclement weather.

Cleopatra Russell, GBPC corporate communications manager, explained that storm flooding to the company’s Peel Street Plant severely damaged operations there, and that the company has been working to rebuild the plant, which it expects to re-commission early next year.

She noted, “The unavailability of the Peel Street Plant has a severe impact on our level of contingency against issues like lightning strikes. In the interim, to supplement the West Sunrise Plant and ensure we have the capacity to meet the island’s energy needs, the company brought on temporary generation units.”

As of the end of May, approximately 950 homes and businesses had yet to be reconnected since September 2019, according to Russell, who advised that over 75 percent of that number are residential customers.

Some of those residents reside in the hardest hit areas of eastern Grand Bahama, where homes were severely damaged or destroyed, and where the majority of the island’s storm deaths occurred.

Of those areas east of the storm-ravaged University of The Bahamas, Russell said, “We have rebuilt and successfully energized the 35 miles of transmission line, which is the main feed from our substation that feeds power to that area located adjacent to Equinor to just shy of Bevans Town.

“Crews are now progressing towards Pelican Point, which will be energized by the end of June. Crews will then head west to Freetown from Bevans Town with a goal of energizing them in early July,” she advised.

Delays for the Rand

It was only recently that medical and surgical services at the Rand Memorial Hospital were transferred from modular tents to the island’s Cancer Association building.

The move was triggered by repeated bursts of inclement weather the tents provided by U.S.-based NGO (non-governmental organization) Samaritan’s Purse could not safely withstand.

Though a target date of the end of March was originally announced for the completion of repair work to critical sections of the island’s flood-damaged hospital, Grand Bahamians will now have to wait until late August or September before key services at the Rand may be restored, according to Grand Bahama Health Services Administrator Sharon Williams.

Back in March, we took a tour of the facility with then Health Minister Dr. Duane Sands, who said additional contractors would need to be engaged to meet the end-of-March deadline, pointing to the hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) as one of the most challenging aspects of the repair work.

Those additional contractors were engaged, according to Williams, who said of the ICU, “The major part would have been plumbing work; when they would have gone into the plumbing structure, because of the age of the facility they would have found a lot of cast iron work that was all rotted out and needed to be changed, so the plumbing work extended to longer than we expected.”

Sands pointed to repairs to the hospital’s operating room and recovery room as being the most progressed, however, Williams indicated that current delays in the completion of specialized flooring for the operating room are due to COVID-19 travel restrictions which prevented travel for the foreign-based technical company engaged for the project.

Pediatrics and maternal and child health services were transferred to the privately-owned Sunrise Medical Center in Dorian’s aftermath.

Obstetrics was originally designated for placement in one of several modular units planned for the Rand.

But a unit that was secured for Freeport’s hospital was instead sent to New Providence to serve as that island’s COVID-19 facility.

Williams said decisions will ultimately have to be made on whether traditional construction of new sections will take place to house designated services.

As for east Grand Bahama, renovations on the clinic in the storm-ravaged settlement of McLean’s Town will commence “very shortly”, Williams advised, and in High Rock where much of the island’s storm deaths occurred, work by a U.S. company on a modular clinic has been approved by the Ministry of Works.

Dorian’s pain lingers on

The fear of another major storm is palpable on Grand Bahama and Abaco and with good reason, considering that many are still homeless and in tents; hundreds of homes have yet to be repaired; schools and clinics must be rebuilt; and many shelters — whenever they are certified — will be in the same flood-prone areas where they met their fate in Dorian.

When the prime minister announced the new disaster preparedness ministry, he said “it cannot be business as usual in government”.

He notably announced that the ministry will work with local authorities to develop plans to construct high-capacity, reinforced hurricane shelters on “high ground” in vulnerable communities.

But budgetary funds to accomplish such construction were never allocated, and as such, “business as usual in government” in the designation of available shelters has, for now, continued.

Shelter comes in the form of physical structures, and it also comes in the form of confidence that the government will effectively prioritize its responsibilities to protect citizens and residents, and would not allow a new storm season to arrive without those responsibilities being fully met.

Grand Bahama and much of Abaco have so far been left with no shelter on both accounts.

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