Preparation must begin now

The 2021 Atlantic hurricane season – the third most active season on record – is now one for the history books; and, thankfully, The Bahamas suffered no impact from major storm systems this year.

As the country breathes a collective sigh of relief, a renewed sense of urgency for preparation must come to bear with just six months before a new season wherein global warming and rising sea surface temperatures continue to heighten the risk for high-intensity storms.

Abaco and Grand Bahama as well as Ragged Island before them, are still in various stages of restoration following the impact of major hurricanes, with the devastation of Hurricane Dorian evidenced over two years later in storm deaths for which there is no closure, persistent displacement, and economies clawing their way back from staggering falloffs in commercial activity.

In May, the Minnis administration announced the extension of its post-Dorian Special Economic Recovery Zone (SERZ) order to the end of this year – a two-year duration of tax breaks and incentives in what was originally promised as a three-year exigency plan.

It is now for the Davis administration to determine whether it will grant a further extension of the order utilized by Dorian survivors on Abaco and Grand Bahama in order to facilitate recovery and restoration on both islands.

Considering the extent of recovery needs in both the residential and commercial sectors on both islands, and challenges in the construction sector due to soaring material costs and supply chain constraints, a further extension of the order appears necessary to facilitate and promote growth in the country’s second and third-largest economies.

Essential to securing and advancing economic growth is the provision of adequate public infrastructure inclusive of air and seaports, utilities, schools and healthcare facilities.

In its 2021/2022 supplemental budget, the Davis administration slashed the fiscal year’s capital expenditure allocation by $54.2 million to account for what it says are works that can be realistically carried out during the period.

Details ought to be provided on how the shift in allocations will impact the timing of much-needed public infrastructure repairs and upgrades for Abaco and its cays, and for parts of Grand Bahama.

Details should also be provided on how the fiscal year’s reduced capital expenditure allocation will satisfy the administration’s Blueprint pledge to “invest in coastal infrastructure and the floodproofing of critical infrastructure”, and “strengthen existing hurricane shelters to withstand 220-plus mph gusts and 20-foot storm surges on all islands, beginning in Abaco and Grand Bahama”.

Also billed last term as integral to recovery from Dorian and preparation for future storms was the Disaster Reconstruction Authority (DRA), under the Ministry of Disaster Preparedness, Management and Reconstruction.

The DRA received government subventions and local and international donor pledges to fund home repair and clean-up works on Abaco and Grand Bahama, and according to State Minister Myles Laroda in a media interview earlier this month, a review of contracts initiated by the DRA is currently underway.

Two years of audited DRA accounts required by law have not been submitted to Parliament, against the backdrop of prior complaints by unpaid DRA vendors.

Since it is currently unclear whether additional funds will be disbursed to the DRA until ongoing reviews are complete and accounts are audited, the outcome for homeowners still hopeful for DRA assistance remains uncertain.

The Davis administration also pledged to strengthen building, construction and enforcement oversight, and in its Speech from the Throne, said the government will introduce “a new and progressive building code to increase resilience in the face of climate change”.

The introduction of a new building code such as has been promised will take time and considerable consultation, which is why work on the same ought to begin in earnest to ready the country for the likelihood of more powerful hurricanes.

Having escaped the landfall of major hurricanes this season together with losses to life, property and public revenue which can result, the next six months can be better focused on early preparation and sourcing sufficient revenue to achieve resiliency objectives.

Meantime, let us remember the thousands of residents for whom recovery and restoration continue to be an achingly slow process.

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