How ready are we?

There are now 102 days to the start of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season.

Budgetary provisions for hurricane preparedness and mitigation became a point of contention during yesterday’s Supplementary Budget debate as Golden Isles MP Vaughn Miller bemoaned a lack of allocations thereto, and questioned the country’s resulting level of readiness.

His observations were met with repeated protests from government members, but they were nonetheless valid and echoed positions previously expressed in regional forums that have urged Caribbean governments to mainstream disaster preparedness into their budgets.

Miller questioned why the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) was not earmarked to receive additional funding via the budget which foreshadows $587.9 million in borrowing.

The question is particularly relevant given that NEMA — the agency that co-ordinates preparation and response for all disasters in The Bahamas — suffered a 50 percent recurrent allocation cut in the government’s 2019/2020 fiscal budget, from $1 million in the previous fiscal year to $500,000; a paltry sum given NEMA’s over-arching mandate and responsibilities.

It is inconceivable that the government chose to slash in half funding for the agency it and the country relies on in the event of a disaster, and that it chose not to fix this decision through supplementary funding ahead of hurricane season.

In seeking to defend the budget’s allocations, Finance Minister Peter Turnquest argued that the government is shoring up its risks through disaster insurance and credit lines, but Miller’s concerns targeted budgetary allocations for facilities and resources needed prior to a disaster — a discussion that happens to be undergirded by research.

In a paper entitled “Budgeting for Disasters”, the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) said, “In the presence of catastrophic risks, ex-ante budgeting for disasters can contribute to welfare by increasing saving, promoting more effective mitigation, and supporting disciplined pre-commitment to provide post disaster relief and recovery.”

Ex-ante budgeting is the practice of recognizing the cost of public policy for disaster relief and recovery before a disaster occurs.

In Jamaica, a budgetary allocation is provided to its Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Response, and allocations for natural disasters would also be provided to the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Finance and Public Service and the Office of the Prime Minister, according to a position paper published by the Organization of American States (OAS).

Given that NEMA co-ordinates preparation and response, which must be provided by various government ministries and departments, it makes sense that public policy planning should be geared toward allocations within those ministries and departments earmarked specifically for the roles they play in the process.

Such planning focuses government’s attention on the level of support NEMA would need to carry out its functions, and on how national disaster preparation can be best financed and resourced — a focus that can augur well for improving the country’s state of readiness for disasters.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, and as reconstruction on Abaco and Grand Bahama loomed, the terms “resiliency” and “build better” became the buzzwords of government ministers.

But with June 1 just around the corner, no timeline on potential changes to the country’s robust building code has been foreshadowed, and no revenue measures were included in the supplementary budget to allow for a nationwide tax-free purchase of hurricane shutters so as to incentivize residents on all islands to make their existing structures more resilient ahead of hurricane season.

Last week, Minister of State for Disaster Preparedness, Management and Reconstruction Iram Lewis told Parliament of his ministry’s recommended building code changes including the elevation of homes in flood-prone areas on stilts of four to six feet.

The anticipated cost factor thereof was not indicated, nor how the “flood-prone” designation would be applied given our current climate and topographic realities, but details such as these are part and parcel of a national resiliency strategy that Miller, the country’s contractors and concerned Bahamians stress is needed but is not evident.

Dorian has understandably stretched the resources of government, but tangible nationwide disaster mitigation is needed, and such mitigation takes collaborative focus and the willingness of government to avail itself of all available talent irrespective of politics or personalities.

As the OECD states: “Mitigation can be cost effective up to the point where the last unit of mitigation pays for itself in lower expected losses.”

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