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Super-storms require new thinking

Published: Sep 13, 2017

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The Bahamas has been hit by major hurricanes over three consecutive years. Joaquin ravaged the south; Matthew, the northwest, and Irma, portions of the south, again. There has been hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure.

Climate change has made the seas hotter, fueling the intensity of tropical cyclones. Irma reached Category 5 strength. Its maximum sustained winds peaked at 185 miles per hour and remained there for a record 37 consecutive hours. It directly hit the small community of Ragged Island, rendering it uninhabitable.

The Bahamas appears more at risk during this time period. We must plan differently to meet the threat. Ad hoc responses are insufficient.

We must get serious about zoning laws and the enforcement of those laws across the commonwealth. For years we have filled in wetlands and built there. They are the natural places where water flows. There is a constant flood risk to people living in these areas.

Bahamians build in other unwise places. This is especially a problem in the Family Islands, where sand is some people’s backyards.

Being this close to the sea is dangerous when storm surge comes in. We need to enforce the zoning laws we have and add restrictions where necessary in order to prevent people from building in dangerous areas. Life and property are at risk in flood zones.

There is also the need to consider the construction of large multi-purpose regional shelters capable of withstanding winds in excess of 200 miles per hour. We cannot evacuate everyone from every island to New Providence in every storm. That is logistically impossible. People who live in homes unsuitable for major hurricanes need to be able to shelter on their islands or on a nearby island.

Building such shelters on high ground in the north, central and southern Bahamas would allow residents from these areas to go to places of safety closer to their homes. These shelters could be used as community centers otherwise.

We have traditionally designated schools and churches as shelters. Quite a few of these structures are incapable of withstanding Category 5 storms, however. Some, in fact, should not be designated shelters at all.

On the response side to storms, there is much to do too. The United States currently has to recover from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. The Irma effort involves the mainland and territories, including the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. The British, French and Dutch have Caribbean colonies devastated by the storm. Dutch King Willem-Alexander and French President Emmanuel Macron have visited the area.

The Europeans have been criticized for tardy and insufficient responses and poor preparation. They have bolstered their military, police and financial aid.

The Bahamas has traditionally relied on U.S. air assets after storms. This is especially true regarding helicopter transportation. A British Navy ship was critical in delivering aid to the south after Joaquin.

What this storm has demonstrated is that the rich countries may be so bogged down trying to save themselves and their territories that we must be prepared to address our problems. We, as a nation, still own no helicopters. The government had to beg the public to assist with large vehicles in order to rescue people on New Providence during Matthew. It did not own amphibious vehicles.

As an independent country, we must still find the resources to purchase the assets needed to mount rescue efforts across our islands. We should not expect other countries to help.

Irma’s impact on St. Martin – the Dutch/French colony – was calamitous. Order broke down. There was looting and violence. Are we prepared if this were to happen in The Bahamas? Are there protocols for when a state of emergency should be declared? Who would man the streets? Police or the defense force? Do the officers know the use of force guidelines in a state of emergency when order has broken down?

There is much to think about as a result of our experience the past three years. A national discussion is needed, so that when “the big one” hits, we are as prepared as possible.

Preparation is what saves lives. Let’s be ready for the worst we could face.

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