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Awaiting relief

It is January 2013, and in five months another hurricane season will be upon us. But there is a burning question that still bothers the victims of Tropical Storm Tomas: Will our houses damaged during the storm be repaired and ready to face another season?

Additionally, there is also another question which the Government should also consider: Is it worth the financial output to repair homes that are located in high-risk areas, or should Government relocate those homes”

According to reports appearing in the media, there are still many Barbadian homes owners who are still awaiting relief from Government. Home owners who suffered damage during Tomas have complained that their plight has become the subject of social and political rhetoric, and that while the debate continues no actual work has occurred on the properties.

A similar scenario is also unfolding in the US, where the victims of Super Storm Sandy in 2012 are still trying to rebuild their lives and homes. The similarity between the two sets of victims lies in their social and economic status of the victims, and the fact that both groups also lived in high-risk areas.

All of the persons affected by the two systems are from the lower socio-economic classes. Both groups are awaiting federal and national assistance to start the rebuilding process. Both groups do not carry the appropriate insurance to support the reconstruction of the properties.

Both groups were assured immediately after the storms, that assistance would be forthcoming and the red tape that exists when public funds are to be used for disaster recovery, would be minimised and that victims would be fast tracked through the recovery process. However, the reality is that the “fast tracking” is really “slow tracking” and victims are not seeing the results of the promises made immediately after the storms.

In the United States, there is concern about whether it is economically feasible to rebuild homes that will remain in high-risk areas. These areas have a history of flooding, hence the difficulty in getting aid for storm victims through the US Congress, estimated at $60 billion.

Approval of the aid package highlights the hard choices that may have to be made soon across the country, where the federal, state and local governments all say that they don’t have unlimited financial resources to keep refinancing repeated storm recovery.

Many of the victims do not want to abandon an area that has been a home for many generations. It is a concept that is unthinkable for many. Dina Long, the Mayor of Sea Bright, New Jersey, said: “We’re not retreating.”

Sea Bright is a chronically flooded area of sand between the Atlantic Ocean and the New Jersey Shrewsbury River. An area which is slightly wider than the length of an American football field. Three-quarters of its 1,400 residents are still homeless and the entire business district was wiped out; only four shops have managed to reopen. Despite a rock and concrete sea wall and pumping equipment in the centre of the town, Sea Bright floods repeatedly. It is an area featured in the news every time a storm appears off the coast. But like many other storm-damaged communities, the will to survive, rebuild, and restore is strong.

The problem has worsened in recent decades with an aggressive development near the nation’s shorelines. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stated in 2003, that approximately 153 million people or approximately 53 per cent of the US population lived in coastal counties, an increase of 33 million people since 1980. The agency also forecasted that 12 million more would join them by 2015.

In Barbados, during 2005 and 2006, while examining coastal evacuation scenarios, approximately 65,000 persons were estimated to be living within 1800 feet of the East, South, Southwest, West and Northwest coast lines; from Silver Sands in Christ Church to Maycock’s Bay in St. Lucy; and Morgan Lewis to Conset Bay in St. Andrew and St. John. The difference between the United States and Barbados is that Barbadian disaster victims do not have the luxury of physical relocation to safer areas due to limited physical space of the island.

Engineers have stated that many of the homes in Barbados do not meet the required standards for shoreline development; neither do they meet the requirements for wind storm resistance.

Debates have raged for years regarding the housing designs for tropical storms, rain, and storm surge protection. It has been suggested that more than 50 per cent of the homes in Barbados would not be able to withstand a hurricane with the intensity of a Hurricane Katrina or Ivan. It is a realisation that still remains in 2013.

Engineers also complained that many of the homes which had survive the impacts of Ivan and Tomas, still had not been comprehensively examined by their owners to correct the weaknesses highlighted during post-examination after the passing of the systems. Additionally, the Government had not included in their long-term mitigation strategies, the economic and social benefits to determine the practicalities of relocating all of the victims to safer areas.

Is it possible that in examining the feasibility of such a mitigation plan, that the capital outlay for such a venture could prove to be far more than the Barbados national budget could absorb?

Flooding in Barbados in the past five years has reached record heights, impacting areas that had not seen severe flooding for generations. Even communities with a history of flooding had commented that some of the flooding was the worst they had ever seen in more than 50 years. Government’s flooding and drainage departments have had to endure the complaints of irate owners who are still awaiting the promised infrastructural relief.

The questions still remain:

“What are the mitigation plans for 2013?”

“When will tangible evidence be presented that supports the much publicised promises of remediation of the high risk areas?”

“When will the homes receive the repairs and upgrades that are desperately needed before the 2013 hurricane season?”

“Is a plan being considered to relocate some of the home to safer areas?”

“Where will this land appear and who will be paying for the relocation?”

Emergency management is a very fluid discipline adapting to meet the demands of response and recovery; but disaster mitigation requires definitive approaches to managing the impact of a hazard; whether that hazard is natural or technological. Fires, floods, and hurricanes are not biased by who are affected. Race, class, economics, or politics are not factors that are considered by hazards when they occur.

What becomes evident after the impact is not the devastation recorded, but the quality of the mitigation plans implemented and speed by which a society rebuilds and recovers from the effects of that hazard.

Procrastination during recovery is the enemy of all disaster victims. What must also be realised is that social and political procrastination in recovery just further exacerbates the impact of the next hazard that occurs. In my opinion, it would appear that procrastination and complacency are now competing for the number one position on the 2013 “Disaster Hit Parade”.

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