Ahead of the start of hurricane season on June 1, Minister of State for Disaster Preparedness Iram Lewis said yesterday that mass-assembling people in hurricane shelters is no longer an option due to social distancing protocols brought on by COVID-19.
Instead, he said, his ministry is looking to use multi-story schools for shelters, where evacuees could be separated into different classrooms.
“We are actively inspecting shelters,” Lewis told The Nassau Guardian.
“We’re looking at more elevated properties, to see how we could harden the properties that we have right now and how we could make the existing shelters better. But, there is another elephant in the room called COVID-19. So, we cannot go the traditional way anymore.
“We have to make the necessary adjustment to be in keeping with COVID-19 protocols. So, very quickly, we cannot mass-assemble any evacuees. We cannot expect 300 evacuees to be in one [shelter].
“Instead of emptying out the gymnasium and putting the furniture in the classrooms, [we] will [use] the classrooms where we could have separation of large groups.”
He added, “We are looking at using the classroom blocks that have bathroom facilities primarily, that have the lunch room or the home EC (economics) room [to] use that as cooking facilities or feeding areas.
“We’re looking at perhaps converting the computer rooms to communication centers.”
Lewis said there has been primary focus on Grand Bahama and Abaco, being the islands hardest hit by Dorian and which are still recovering.
A recent report by the International Organization for Migration indicated that there is not sufficient shelter capacity on Grand Bahama and Abaco for the upcoming hurricane season.
Abaconian Pastor Silbert Mills and Abaco Chamber of Commerce President Ken Hutton yesterday both raised concerns about central Abaco not having a suitable hurricane shelter.
Mills said Central Abaco Primary School could be suitable for the ministry’s plans if the structure is reinforced, and claimed that repairs seem to be “being done at a rapid pace”.
But Hutton said he believes the island is “months away” from any shelter being ready.
Hutton also called attention to the state of disrepair the island remains in, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed repairs.
“It’s very, very difficult to make preparations when you’re still trying to put a roof on your house,” he said.
Lewis acknowledged that preparations are not “100 percent completed all over”, but said that the preparations for the upcoming season are “going very well”.
As he referred to the unexpected COVID-19 pandemic as another “teachable moment”, he said: “Moving forward there is a new, innovative design for classroom blocks.
“We’re going to call it the ‘resilient block’ and put classroom blocks that would be able to act as shelter.
“And once the design is already completed and once the relevant authority approves it, we will come to the public and probably do a press conference and explain all of the dynamics.”
When asked if such blocks might be ready for this hurricane season, Lewis said, “The presentation certainly will be ready, but again we will make all the necessary adjustments to the existing properties that we have now.
“We are assuming that COVID-19 is going to be around for the duration of the season, so we have to prepare along the line as if it is.”