Decisions and actions before disasters play a significant role in the extent of loss and the ability to effect recovery and restoration.
As we look to the threat of future storms, it is essential for the government to acknowledge and account for areas of shortcomings or failures in preparation for and response to Dorian.
Politics is the least of why this is important and calls for accountability are not to be irrationally equated with the idea that one is blaming the government for Dorian’s passage.
Accountability is not about blame, but rather is the obligation of government to account for its actions before, during and after the storm, take responsibility for them and report to the nation on the results and consequences of those actions with the aim of fixing the problems that exist.
The 2019 Atlantic hurricane season is not yet over, and even if we are not impacted by another storm before November 30, destructive hurricanes will remain a pressing reality for The Bahamas.
This year it was Abaco and Grand Bahama. Next year it can be New Providence and other Family Islands.
The government insists that it was ready and did everything it could ahead of and in response to the killer storm, even as facts on the ground tell a different story and as defense force officers and a newly appointed Cabinet minister have spoken to a state of unreadiness.
In The Bahamas, we have a tendency to allow politics and an aversion to personal responsibility to damage our own best interests by refusing to press for accountability and changes that can ensure more positive outcomes.
The extent to which the government acknowledges, gives an account for and adequately addresses failures in its Dorian response will be the extent to which this country is better prepared for future storms and better equipped to protect lives and property during and after a disaster.
Evacuation zones — Abaco
The assertion that those who lost their lives in Hurricane Dorian died because they refused to leave evacuation zones is by and large a fallacy.
Almost all fatalities from Dorian occurred outside of evacuation zones — a notable indication of why accountability regarding the process of determining evacuation zones and the carrying out of evacuations is necessary.
On August 30, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis announced evacuation zones for the northern Abaco cays and portions of east and west Grand Bahama.
Residents of the Abaco cays were told to move to “mainland Abaco”, but the problem with this announcement was that the central to northern mainland of Abaco at that point was forecast to take a direct hit from what was expected to be a powerful Category 4 storm with the potential to strengthen to Category 5 status, bringing as much as 15 feet of storm surge.
In a National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) Evacuation Status document generated for the 5 a.m. hurricane advisory of August 31 and recently tabled in Parliament by Opposition Leader Philip Davis, settlements including Marsh Harbour, Murphy Town and Dundas Town were forecast to sustain severe to catastrophic wind damage.
Settlements farther south of Marsh Harbour, according to the NEMA document, were forecast to sustain minimal to potentially moderate wind damage.
Of the 10 hurricane shelters published for central and north Abaco ahead of the storm, six of those were on the cays which had been designated evacuation zones and two of the largest remaining ones — Central Abaco Primary School and Abaco Central High School — were in areas forecast to sustain the brunt of Dorian’s damage.
According to those who live on Abaco’s cays, all residents were accounted for after the storm, which would mean that all of the yet-to-be finalized number of fatalities on Abaco happened on the mainland where residents were told to evacuate to.
Had hundreds from the cays heeded the government’s evacuation order and sought refuge in Marsh Harbour, they would have placed themselves directly in the path of potential death.
Contrary to popular belief, shantytown areas of The Mudd and Pigeon Peas were not designated as evacuation zones even though they, like much of Marsh Harbour, were low-lying areas in the path of Dorian’s eye.
People on Abaco did not die because they refused to heed evacuation orders. They died because of Hurricane Dorian, and died where they were told by the government to be — on the mainland of Abaco.
Evacuation zones — Grand Bahama
At press time, there were 11 confirmed deaths and 30 missing on Grand Bahama in the aftermath of Dorian, according to the Royal Bahamas Police Force.
Of the 11 deaths, only one occurred in an evacuation zone. All others occurred in the Freeport district known as “over the bridge” and in High Rock — neither of which had an evacuation order assigned to them.
Of the 23 missing people whose identities have been released by police, 18 were from areas not designated as evacuation zones.
No area of Freeport was designated an evacuation zone except the low-lying settlement of Queen’s Cove which sits near the island’s airport.
The decision not to include other areas of Freeport known to be at risk of storm surge inundation is important.
Storm surge is determined by a storm’s intensity, forward speed, size, central pressure, shape and angle of approach to the coastline, according to the United States National Weather Service.
While the talking points for Dorian seem to be that no one could have known that flooding in Freeport could be this severe, history coupled with meteorological projections suggest otherwise.
When Hurricane Frances impacted Grand Bahama in September 2004, it was a Category 2 storm with sustained winds of 105 miles per hour (mph) moving at near 6 mph with a central pressure of 960 millibars (mb). Storm surge of as much as 12 feet was forecast for the north side of the island, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center’s 5 a.m. advisory on September 4, 2004.
Rainfall of between eight and 12 inches was forecast and Frances eventually slowed to a near stationary crawl over Freeport, moving at 3 mph for approximately 30 hours.
With those factors at play in only a Category 2 hurricane, storm surge in Freeport travelled as far inland as the downtown business district, flooding communities downtown, in North Bahamia and over the bridge.
By the time evacuation orders were announced for Grand Bahama, Dorian was already forecast to impact the island as a powerful Category 4 storm with higher storm surge and rainfall levels than Frances, and was expected to stall over the island — which would have significantly exacerbated the potential for inland flooding.
NEMA’s document projected that much of north and central Freeport could be impacted by at least six to nine feet of storm surge.
Yet, communities such as “back of town”, North Bahamia and those in Freeport’s “over the bridge” districts that flooded in Hurricane Frances were not ordered to evacuate, and as such, people remained in their homes until storm surge pushed hundreds into their roofs and into raging flood waters.
Residents of other areas in Freeport nearer to the island’s north side were not told to be on alert for flooding and were hence stunned when storm surge drove them out of their homes.
And 128 east Grand Bahama residents who heeded the warning to evacuate to their designated shelter in Freeport — the Maurice Moore Primary School — were flooded out of their shelter and had to run for their lives to a nearby home to escape potential death.
Most people on Grand Bahama did not die because they refused to heed evacuation orders. They died because of Hurricane Dorian, and in the majority of cases died in areas the government did not deem unsafe enough to warrant an order to evacuate.
Did the government do its job?
Much ado has been made by the prime minister on proposed amendments to the Disaster Preparedness and Response Act that make refusal to follow evacuation orders an offense punishable by fines and jail time, but no accountability has come to bear on adherence to that act which spells out the role of NEMA and the prime minister in a disaster.
NEMA is not an autonomous agency. In the act, the director of NEMA answers to and takes instructions from the prime minister who appoints NEMA’s consultative committees, its Advisory Committee, acts as chairman of the Advisory Committee when attending its meetings and who must give approval to NEMA’s annual Disaster Preparedness and Response Policy Review and its annual National Disaster Preparedness and Response Plan in order for the agency to legally carry out its yearly objectives.
In short, NEMA’s successes and failures, such as they exist, ultimately fall to the feet of the prime minister.
Was a National Disaster Preparedness and Response Plan as outlined in Part 3 of the act prepared by NEMA and approved by the prime minister this year? If so, that plan should be tabled in Parliament so the country can see and know it, particularly since hurricanes are not the only disaster threat NEMA is charged with responding to.
Part 3, Section 8(2)(m) of the act calls for the National Disaster Preparedness and Response Plan to include “procedures to apply in the event that the evacuation of all the residents of any area is considered to be desirable”.
Though evacuations from the cays were urged, there was no immediate system in place by the government to carry them out. Ultimately, those evacuations were mostly carried out by concerned residents.
There was no plan announced to evacuate large numbers of people either to a safer section of an island or off the island entirely, though the act says such a plan is to be in place each year.
And since most residents on Abaco and Grand Bahama were in areas that were not evacuation zones, what was the plan to help those in distress during the storm, be it in shelters or in their homes? If the thinking was those in evacuation zones should be left to fend for themselves, what about the tens of thousands outside of those zones?
Part 3, Section 8(2)(f) calls for “procedures for the protection and restoration of communications, both nationally and internationally”.
Did NEMA and essential service personnel on both islands have working satellite phones and other forms of alternative communication?
During the storm when services by the Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC) went down, the public was left cut off from emergency resources and agencies, and individuals working with NEMA were left cut off from NEMA and from one another.
This was further exacerbated when the state’s broadcaster, ZNS 810 radio in Freeport, went off the air during the storm and remained off the air in its aftermath.
The government must account for what forms of alternative communication it secured ahead of Dorian and cause BTC to fully account to the public for its communications failures, particularly in light of cellular provider Aliv’s performance before, during and after the storm.
Section 8(2)(h) calls for “procedures for the release, distribution and replenishment of emergency stores of supplies of food, water, clothing and medical supplies”.
Residents on Abaco and Grand Bahama know that this process was anything but organized and efficient in Dorian’s aftermath, and it is unknown how much emergency relief supplies NEMA had on both islands ahead of the storm or how much personnel NEMA secured beforehand to offload and distribute once the all-clear was given. In a Perspective poll, 84 percent of the respondents said NEMA’s response to Dorian was not adequate while 16 percent said it was adequate.
Section 8(2)(j) calls for “procedures for the provision of shelter for persons”.
The government must account for why it chose shelters on both islands that were likely to be in the path of either catastrophic winds, life-threatening storm surge or both —especially if no rescue plan was in place for persons in those shelters.
Ahead of the hurricane season, NEMA ought to have sought to secure shelters south of east Sunrise Highway on Grand Bahama where land elevations are higher in the event that the island’s flood-prone northern section would be at risk.
If the police force and other essential services had made arrangements to store vehicles in elevated areas to the south in Freeport, some critical assets could have been spared.
Section 8(2)(j) calls for “procedures for protecting life and property from the dangers of looting and riotous behaviour”.
Additional defense force personnel and resources should have been sent to Abaco and Grand Bahama ahead of the storm so that they could be mobilized during and immediately after its passage.
This could have aided in stemming widespread looting in Abaco’s disaster areas and strengthened rescue efforts on the ground on both islands.
And Section 8(2)(d) calls for “procedures for preparing and maintaining inventories of services, systems and supplies for the mitigation of, preparedness for, response to and recovery from emergencies and disasters”.
During Dorian, private citizens used their jet skis, boats, payloaders and heavy-duty trucks to rescue hundreds who may otherwise have drowned.
What were the plans to ensure that watercraft resources were available for use by police and defense force officers during and immediately after Dorian?
With no useful assets of their own, our uniformed branches had to rely on the cooperation of private assets to respond to distress calls during and after the storm.
Politics over people
After a disaster, elected officials may scramble to mitigate political fallout and in an effort to quell concerns and complaints brand both as negativity and an affront to national unity.
There is a prevailing sentiment from government that we should move on from the failures before, during and after Dorian, and chalk them up to Dorian’s unprecedented impact.
But that sentiment, if we submit to it, is a recipe for disaster as killer storms are said by government to be the new norm.
You cannot fix what you will not acknowledge and you will not fix what you are not required to be accountable for.
The prime minister should provide the nation a full, transparent and comprehensive accounting of the government’s level of preparation and readiness ahead of Hurricane Dorian, outlining in detail the failures in readiness and response and how each will be addressed.
And to remove from a government the lawful ability or discretion to choose not to provide such reports, a statutory provision should be introduced that requires the prime minister as the minister of NEMA, to account to Parliament for the government’s disaster readiness and response.