Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis yesterday hailed the Disaster Reconstruction Authority Bill, 2019, as an integral part of the change that is necessary in the government’s handling of natural disasters.
Minnis said it would be “unwise” to not make these changes having experienced the wrath of Hurricane Dorian. However, Exumas and Ragged Island MP Chester Cooper said the bill will result in unfocused leadership and seems like an attempt to work around existing systems. He said the bill is “offensive” and “one of the worst drafted and poorly thought-out pieces of legislation” he’d ever seen.
The bill was passed shortly after 7 p.m. yesterday.
The opposition did not support the bill.
Dorian, a Category 5 storm, ravaged parts of Abaco and Grand Bahama in early September.
Minnis, who led off debate on the bill in the House of Assembly, said, “We have to change, revise and in various instances dramatically overhaul laws, procedures, agencies and mindset for these times.
“There are those who cling to doing things the old way. Whenever innovation is suggested they say ‘no, no, no’.
“They complain. They fear change.”
The bill, if passed, would establish an authority that would be responsible for management and oversight of reconstruction in disaster zones. The prime minister would be able to appoint a minister of state responsible for the oversight of the authority. The bill also says that the prime minister would have the power, in consultation with relevant authorities, to declare an area a disaster zone.
The authority would be able to accept, deposit and act as trustee and manager of gifts and donations for the purpose of reconstruction in a disaster zone. It would also be able to enter into contracts to carry out reconstruction efforts, and appoint employees as considered necessary.
According to the bill, the authority would be responsible for assessing the reconstruction needs of a disaster zone; overseeing the reconstruction plan and implementation; arranging the distribution of reconstruction funds and materials; overseeing the restoration of government services; and coordinating with national and international agencies engaged in reconstruction efforts.
It would also be able to establish The Bahamas National Recovery and Reconstruction Trust Fund, and appoint trustees.
Minnis said the trust fund will be independent and non-political.
“It is the responsibility of my government to give birth to a new regime of disaster preparedness and response in The Bahamas that better preserves life and lessens the impact of disasters,” Minnis said.
“As a people, we would be unwise and indeed foolish if we let the status quo remain after experiencing Dorian’s wrath.”
However, Cooper questioned why the government did not choose to fix issues with the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) instead of forming new authorities. He said the bill “flies in the face” of Minnis’ promise to reduce red tape.
“This bill is the definition of creating red tape and bureaucratic mess,” Cooper said.
He added, “It appears that all these new bills and consultants and committees and appointments and the new ministry this administration has conjured are a way to get around focused leadership.
“[I] get the distinct impression that this is an attempt to work around the existing systems, perhaps even existing ministers and existing ministries. This legislation purports that the authority is to work with NEMA, is to share funds with NEMA, may assume responsibilities of NEMA if NEMA so deems. The director of NEMA is mandated to be on the board of the authority. Like NEMA, the prime minister has ultimate oversight of this authority by virtue of being the only one who can declare a disaster recovery zone.
“Perhaps someone can explain to me why we are not fixing NEMA and empowering NEMA to expand its functions instead of creating whatever this new creature will be.”
Cooper insisted that the bill will not achieve what the government says it will, and expressed concern over the potential for corruption with the creation of the trust fund. He also questioned how much taxpayer money will have to spend on salaries, and whether party favorites will be selected to hold positions.
“If we stack this board of trustees with political cronies, as has been the track record of this government, then it defeats the purpose,” Cooper said.
“[A]s vague as this language is, I can already tell you this bill won’t help the government raise the money from the private sector.
“You’ve got a credibility problem, because no one who seeks to see any urgent need met wants to donate money to NEMA. The people of Ragged Island still await an accounting of the funds donated to NEMA. You’ve got a credibility problem.”
But Minnis maintained that the government would be “unwise and foolish” to allow the status quo to remain after Dorian’s impact.
“After various hurricanes, successive governments set up ad hoc or temporary measures,” Minnis said.
“Such ad hoc measures are insufficient in light of the challenges posed by hurricanes in the face of the global climate emergency.
“The Disaster Reconstruction Authority Bill, 2019, we debate today, is a major part of the necessary change in how the government and The Bahamas respond to disaster preparedness, response, and reconstruction.”
He said the bill will help to cut through the red tape and bureaucracy that slows progress in The Bahamas.
“We will make changes through legislation, and through policy, administrative and personnel changes,” he concluded.
“The naysayers will not deter us. The consequences of inaction or inadequate action are too great.
“We must act to save lives and to lessen suffering. We will do what is best for the Bahamian people who entrusted us with the awesome responsibility to govern and to act in the promotion of the common good.”