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Hurricane Irene and being prepared

Front Porch

Published: Aug 30, 2011

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If Hurricane Irene imagined she would meet The Bahamas unprepared, she was mistaken.  Having swamped virtually the entire archipelago, the massive, powerful and slow-moving storm met the country generally prepared for her assault.  In her wake there is a spirit of gratitude by many, especially that there was no loss of life.

Still, Irene left behind significant damage to homes, businesses and other private property, government offices and vegetation, devastating some Family Island settlements.  Cat Island, Acklins and Crooked Island, Mayaguana, Long Island and parts of San Salvador, Rum Cay, Exuma, Eleuthera and Abaco have been adversely impacted.

Foreign observers tracking Irene’s path through The Bahamas may have learned a few lessons about Bahamian geography and why it took the hurricane several days to traverse the country.  They may have learned about an archipelago of many island groups, an expanse approximately equal to that on size of the distance from Puerto Rico to Trinidad and Tobago.

The Weather Channel and weatherman Al Roker, with Bahamian roots, gave television viewers a tour through the Islands of The Bahamas as Irene’s fury battered the various island groups.

Fortuitously, the hurricane’s easterly turn mostly spared the country’s larger population centers of New Providence and Grand Bahama.  A direct hit on the former would have more adversely impacted the country and its capacity to respond to the needs of other islands.  Grand Bahama, still struggling with the aftermath of natural and economic storms, avoided another blow it could ill afford.

Preparation for Irene began 19 years ago after Hurricane Andrew wreaked havoc on the country, causing devastation in some Family Islands.  Andrew was a wake-up call from the complacency and somewhat false sense of security into which The Bahamas was lulled after avoiding major hurricanes for some years.

Irene’s assault coincided with the anniversary of Andrew’s onslaught on the country soon after the FNM and Hubert Ingraham won office in 1992.  Nineteen years later, the country is better prepared for such natural disasters because of pivotal decisions made back then.  One of the more consequential was the creation of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA).

The creation of NEMA spurred a significantly improved culture of disaster preparedness by government and non-governmental organizations.  Despite some glitches, the timely and professional response by many government agencies and NGOs was greatly in evidence when tested by Irene.


In broadcast statements before and after Irene hit, the prime minister assured Bahamians, residents and visitors, that the government’s preparedness and response mechanisms were fully in place.  Following the hurricane, Ingraham briefed the country on the multiple teams dispatched throughout the country to assess the damage and recovery needs.

The prime minister also thanked various agencies.

“I want, in particular, to commend the Department of Meteorology for the timeliness of its weather information; the Royal Bahamas Police Force and the Royal Bahamas Defence Force for their continuous presence throughout the storm; and, our emergency health teams who commenced emergency operation on Wednesday ahead of the arrival of the hurricane and who remained on duty throughout,” he said.

“The Ministry of Health has given every assurance that all community health clinics around the country have adequate supplies of medications and that they will continue to be properly and adequately supplied in the weeks and months ahead.”

He continued: “Reaction teams from the Ministry of Public Works, the Department of Environmental Health Services, the Bahamas Electricity Corporation, the Royal Bahamas Police Force and Royal Bahamas Defence Force moved expeditiously to clear main public thoroughfares in New Providence even before the ‘all clear’ was given by the Department of Meteorology – and they are especially thanked.

“The Department of Environmental Health Services mobilized 20 garbage trucks on New Providence in advance of the hurricane to collect household garbage.  An additional 12 independent truckers were also engaged to collect bulk waste throughout the island of New Providence.

“I am advised that the team re-mobilized at 2 p.m. on Thursday, providing assistance to road-clearing exercises.  The team also responded to individual calls where roofs of homes were damaged as a result of trees falling.  Today, 40 teams were mobilized to continue clearing the main road arteries in Fox Hill, Bain and Grants Towns, Kennedy, Malcolm Road and in the city.”

The archipelagic nature of the country means that the logistical and organizational demands of disaster preparedness and response are unique and more complex than that of a single land mass such as Barbados.  Yet, the central government in Nassau has to respond to the challenges posed by urban centers and Family Island settlements.

These logistical and organizational challenges play to the incumbent prime minister’s strengths as demonstrated in his effective management during various hurricanes, including in lessons learned and responses implemented.

Prime Minister Ingraham has spoken of how global warming may spawn more intense storms and hurricanes, and rising sea levels especially in low-lying countries such as ours.  These things all pose complex challenges in terms of hurricane preparedness and mitigation efforts.


Towards this end, in addition to providing NEMA with various technological and other resources, the Ingraham administration is nearing the completion of a state-of-the-art command center for the agency on Gladstone Road.

There is a three-pronged strategy to provide the northern, central and southern Bahamas with warehouses storing emergency supplies that can be made quickly available to these sectors of the country.  New Providence already has such a facility, with others planned for Grand Bahama and Inagua.

Improvements to the defence force base in Inagua and the creation of a new base in Ragged Island augment the capacity to respond to major storms and hurricanes; so will infrastructural improvements such as the installation of extensive drainage systems in parts of New Providence, especially in flood-prone areas.

Irene’s dismantling of the temporary tent housing the downtown straw market offers some lessons.  Among them: be prepared.

Some vendors who complained of the destruction of their goods left in the market during the hurricane wondered what the government might do to compensate their loss.  This included a potential loss of sales because some vendors indicated that they could not afford to miss a day’s work as a result of goods damaged or destroyed.  In essence, taxpayers should finance their irresponsibility.

A fellow straw vendor offered a to the point response noting that not only did vendors have enough time to move their goods, she also suggested that they should have been prepared for a rainy day.  Fortunately, straw vendors will soon have a new market.  Yet, many of them will continue to moan and complain because of new guidelines that will be put in place for the market.

And many who have whined incessantly about certain roadworks may get a better sense of why such extensive drainage systems are being put in place along with placing various utilities underground.  It’s not just the surface of the new roads that will enhance the quality of life of Bahamians and residents: so will the upgraded potable water system, bringing with it significantly enhanced water pressure through the extensive piping underground.

Even in the midst of significant national challenges and having weathered a major hurricane, there are many things we should be grateful for.  More of us might remember this the next time we overindulge our knee-jerk appetite to whine and complain while ignoring positive developments.

Those developments will prepare us for other hurricanes as well as the future just as the creation of NEMA left us better prepared when Irene threatened virtually the entire archipelago.  With lessons learned, we can continue to improve our disaster preparedness and response systems.  With a twist on an aphorism of Louis Pasteur, “Fortune favors the prepared country.”

Note: The Church’s Moral Compass – Part 2 will appear next week.

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 30 August 2011 16:08


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