Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and her parliamentary colleagues are once again talking about introducing zoning laws and appropriate disaster risk-management legislation to prevent people from building homes in hazardous areas, and ways to protect life and property.
A building code has been in the making for many years and the need for aggressive enforcement of zoning laws has been debated for more than a decade. Additionally, agencies like the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management have been urging Government to deal speedily with the growth of informal settlements in environmentally fragile areas.
Now, Hurricane Sandy's $5-billion disaster trail has renewed the debate. While we are fairly good at enacting laws, enforcement has been very poor and ineffective.
In this round of debate, some parliamentarians like former Mayor of Kingston Desmond McKenzie are pushing for a robust Act which will trigger extraordinary powers to forcibly move reluctant individuals from potentially unsafe locations during a hurricane threat.
Although it has been established that evacuation can mitigate the adverse effects of disaster on a community, many people have stubbornly refused to move to safety. There are always those who will express scepticism and the Jamaican 'no problem' nonchalance. But even when such caution is thrown to the wind, emergency responders are obliged to help them if and when they are threatened.
Mandatory evacuation is, in itself, a huge logistic undertaking which has an enormous economic cost, including providing transportation and temporary shelter. There are also ethical questions which will arise. Are persons likely to face criminal charges if they refuse to move? Will they be fined for disobeying the order?
The discussion about disaster risk-management policy is urgent, for weather experts have predicted that hurricanes will become more powerful and intense with climate change. It means that, for vulnerable islands like ours, a disaster management plan has to be supported by ongoing preparedness, not just during the hurricane season, but throughout the year.
If the prime minister had her way, there are areas in this country in which "no one will be able to put up even a shack". We predict that, with the best of intentions, the usual legislative delays will ensure that such measures will not materialise any time soon.
For sure, many of these vulnerable structures are to be found in illegal squatter communities and other informal settlements which have been created in environmentally fragile areas such as riverbeds, hilly slopes and gully banks. In the Kingston Metropolitan Area alone, there are estimated to be 37 communities that have been established in flood-prone areas.
It is a complex problem, for the Government must try to achieve a delicate balance between principles of governance and public safety and the need for shelter for nearly a million of its landless citizens who are fanned out across Jamaica. The answer may not lie in criminalising squatters with all the emotional reactions that are likely to accompany any such action.
We cannot underestimate the value of public education whereby individuals are made to understand that they, too, have a role to play in applying preventative measures to reduce the severity of the impact of a hurricane or other disaster.
Predictions of unprecedented storms in the future means we may not be able to avoid the onslaught of hurricane fury. However, with a solid plan and better coordination, we will likely minimise the damage to life and property.
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