A shortsighted approach to evacuations

Proposed amendments to the Disaster Preparedness and Response Act make a refusal to follow an evacuation order a criminal offense, while failing to stipulate how government is to facilitate evacuations at all stages of a disaster emergency — a shortsighted approach that suggests key lessons from Dorian have not been learned.

When evacuation orders for Grand Bahama and Abaco and its cays were first issued, private citizens ultimately carried out much of the transport as state resources were not immediately mobilized to facilitate the state’s orders.

For those wishing to evacuate by plane, Bahamasair announced a “reduced fare” of $150, which in effect meant that evacuees would have to pay the airline they finance through their tax dollars to attempt to save their own lives. Those who could not afford it did not take the option.

The amendments provide no framework for how mass evacuations must occur in the event that hundreds or thousands must be removed from an island or a settlement therein.

It is one thing to order people to evacuate their homes. It is another thing to be able to provide adequate and free transport for all evacuees and to clearly communicate to them where they will be housed and how their various needs will be provided for.

At present, we know of no deaths recorded on any of the cays designated as evacuation zones, but we do know a majority of deaths occurred in areas that were not designated evacuation zones on both Abaco and Grand Bahama.

Marsh Harbour, which was forecast to get the eye of Dorian, has an elevation of around 13 feet but was expected to be impacted by a potential storm surge of 15 feet on Dorian’s approach not including anticipated rainfall and the effect of Spring Tide and considering the potential for catastrophic wind damage.

Had hundreds from the Abaco cays chosen to evacuate to Marsh Harbour or surrounding areas, we very likely could have seen an even higher death toll than authorities have announced thus far.

On Grand Bahama, many of those feared dead were in the areas of High Rock heading west toward the segment of Freeport known as “over the bridge” — none of which were designated as evacuation zones.

High Rock residents were urged to be alert and move inland when the formal evacuation order was given, but considering High Rock’s elevation and the anticipated storm surge at the point of Dorian’s approach, those who would have heeded that advisory would not have been safe.

When the government orders an evacuation, it must ensure that its designations are in line with the most recent computer modelings of potential storm surge impacts, otherwise, it could leave some with a false sense of security while leading others to an unsafe alternative location.

And that brings us to the matter of hurricane shelters. Given the advent of stronger hurricanes producing record wind speeds, storm surge and rainfall levels, it is necessary to redefine what we consider to be low-lying areas and safe shelters.

There are no state-constructed storm shelters in The Bahamas. Shelters are primarily schools and church halls that are unsuited to withstand storms at their highest intensities.

Bahamians and residents by the hundreds who obeyed the state’s orders to evacuate ahead of Dorian and to seek refuge at designated shelters wound up running for their lives in the middle of Category 5 conditions as those shelters became compromised by flooding and wind damage.

If The Bahamas wishes to criminalize one’s refusal to evacuate, it must provide adequately designed, elevated and equipped shelters to house mass numbers of evacuees.

It cannot be that the state deems it sufficient to take possession of private property to meet shelter needs under an emergency order as opposed to committing itself to the creation of adequate shelters.

The proposed amendments to be debated tomorrow seem to presuppose that all that is needed for lives to be saved is for the government to be able to force persons to leave their homes.

The undercurrent to this apparent thinking seems to be a view that those who died in Dorian died by some fault of their own with respect to evacuation orders, and that the onus in effective disaster preparedness is weighted more toward the citizenry than the state.

What the state orders, it must provide for, on all levels.

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