Surprised and Concerned
While I’m currently off-island, I doubt I’m the only one that’s been surprised at the devastation wrought by Tropical Storm Fay to the island.
Bermuda would normally laugh off a tropical storm, and while some damage could indeed have been prevented if people had taken more serious preparations – like we usually do for hurricanes, but not always for tropical storms – the damage to vegetation around the island is testament to this storm having been far more powerful than initial expectations.
The PLP has raised the question about whether the Government was properly prepared for this storm.
While there will be many who will criticise the Opposition for – as they may see it – making politics out of this storm, I personally think they are acting as per their constitutional responsibilities, of holding the Government to account and hoping that their criticism will ensure better preparation going forward, especially with Gonzalo on the horizon.
I do think questions need to be asked about the Government’s preparation regarding this storm.
Going solely by the RG articles in the immediate aftermath of the storm the impression given was that:
- Both the Premier and Deputy Premier were off island immediately before and after the storm.
- The Acting Premier, Minister Moniz (the AG) indicated that the Emergency Measures Organisation (EMO) was not embodied in advance of the storm and for the duration of the storm – indeed, the reports indicate the EMO was only convened on Sunday afternoon, delaying a full-scale organised response to the storm.
- It’s not clear to what degree the Regiment was involved in the initial preparation for the storm – although they were eventually partially embodied following the EMO meeting on Sunday afternoon, it’s not clear to what degree the Regiment had emergency response teams in place before and during the storm.
- A full embodiment of the Regiment still does not appear to be in place, despite ongoing concerns about debris post-storm and in preparation for a potential hit by Gonzalo in the next few days.
I think that after Fabian, most of us expected that the following was now the situation in the event of Bermuda having a strong probability of being impacted by tropical weather:
- The EMO to be set up 24 hours in advance of the storm event, and in place for the entire duration of the storm, until the EMO deciding that a state of relative normality has returned.
- The Regiment to be partially embodied (100-200 soldiers) in advance (24 hours) of the storm event, with squads based mainly at Warwick Camp, but also at the Lamb Foggo Urgent Care Centre in the East End, and somewhere in the West End (say Port Royal Fire Station or Dockyard). Another unit could, arguably, be based at the Botanical Gardens in order to facilitate access to the hospital immediately. This would allow a more rapid deployment of forces (as well as emergency assistance during the storm), ensuring quicker clearing up operations – and facilitating a full deployment if warranted.
It’s hard to knock the Government here, as it was a tropical storm and not a hurricane, and, of course, the priority right now is on post-storm operations and preparations for Gonzalo.
However, a post-mortem of how Fay was handled should be done – and I’d expect such to be standard – in order to learn from it and improve for the future. The PLP is right to raise issues along those lines, and the Government, once the immediate situation (and Gonzalo) are over, the post-mortem should be transparent and public.
Other Fay Notes
There’s a few additional thoughts that I think this storm has raised:
- This storm has been a catastrophe for our already struggling agricultural sector. As such, it helps highlights the challenges to this sector in Bermuda, which has importance far beyond the simple provision of food. Local agriculture impacts the ‘Bermuda image’ (important both for tourism and our quality of life), labour (an alternative to tourism and IB), biodiversity (key ecological niches), self-sufficiency, reducing the flow of money out of Bermuda (for food imports) and reducing carbon footprints (from imports) – and no doubt additional issues. Bermuda needs a national agricultural plan (I believe such was proposed, but I haven’t heard much since), seeking to improve and expand local agriculture. This will need to include such issues (among others) as organic standards/certification, bulk purchasing, local agricultural research, agricultural apprenticeships and scholarships, rehabilitation of derelict agricultural land, stronger planning protection of agricultural land and greater protection for local produce (such as a carbon tax on imported produce to subsidise the cost of local produce), etc.
- While there has been a lot of damage to the City parks and east Hamilton in particular, the work to move utilities underground within the North-East Hamilton Economic Empowerment Zone (back-of-town) has been a welcome improvement to the area. This needs to be continued, and consideration should be given on converting more utilities, island-wide, going forward. This should have been covered by the proposed National Infrastructure Plan (NIP), although the status of this plan remains in question.
- There remains the need for a new crossing to replace the Causeway. Work was started on this after Fabian, but put on hold with the advent of the economic crisis in 2008. With Fay, and now potentially Gonzalo, this needs to be revisited. The Causeway being destroyed again like in 2003 would be catastrophic for the island.
- Greater support for installing residential solar panels needs to be implemented. The Energy White Paper was being revised by the OBA once it came to power – it’s time for an update on this, especially as it regards residential solar panels, or alternative domestic energy systems.
- It’s likely this storm will have an impact in the debates relating to ending conscription. I support the complete demilitarisation of Bermuda (and the disbanding of the Regiment – as proud as I am of my own time as a soldier), provided we put into place something else, some kind of national service, that is able to continue the post-hurricane role for which the Regiment currently really finds its purpose, beyond ceremonial pomp and circumstance.
- The airport has yet again been severely impacted by a tropical weather event, particularly as regards flooding to the ground floors. Recently there was a competition for designing a new airport – I hope considerations are made to ensure any new terminal is more robust in this regard.
- It wasn’t that long ago that heavy rain caused delays to waste collection. One can easily imagine the impact of Fay and, possibly, Gonzalo, having a similar domino impact in the weeks ahead. There are also questions that need to be asked about improving our overall waste-collection system, and with memories of the ‘fires of Pembroke’ not that long ago, the sudden increase of organic waste (fallen trees, etc) risk similar problems developing at the Pembroke Dump site. I’ve suggested a few policies in the past regarding this, such as in-vessel composting there (quicker composting and uses a smaller land area), neighbourhood communal composting programmes and a bottle bill to improve collection of beverage containers.
- There’s now a risk of public health issues arising from this storm, primarily in terms of mosquitoes and rats – appropriate measures will have to be taken to reduce this.
- We need to seriously look at a national green infrastructure plan here. And by that I mean the planting of endemic and natives along roadsides and around critical infrastructure. These trees are less susceptible (not invincible, just better) to storm damage, and as such could (in the long-term) reduce the impact of these storm events on our transport and critical infrastructures. Even a linear mangrove planting [pdf] along the Causeway and airport could greatly reduce the impact of storm surges and storm waves on these key infrastructures.
Apart from all that, check on your neighbours, especially the elderly and those with young children. Make sure they’re both recovering from Fay and prepared for Gonzalo.
Make sure you’re prepared for Gonzalo itself – consider Fay a friendly reminder on hurricane preparedness.
Stay safe – Bermuda will recover; we can rebuild or replace property and plant new trees. We can’t replace you.
For me, I’m hoping to return to the island imminently, however Gonzalo risks affecting that plan…