‘We are not squatters’ - Weise Road residents spurn stigma following disaster in unstable Bull Bay
Their houses may be drenched in mud with silt hanging from door curtains and hinges, but residents of hard-hit Weise Road in Bull Bay are proud to call the flood-prone riverbank home, defiant even as contractors, engineers, and a decorated geologist have dubbed most of the area unstable for building.
While they cleared away the sticky remnants from the Chalky River last Thursday, diehards of the Nine Miles community in St Andrew East Rural also made it clear they were not among those squatter communities recently chided by Member of Parliament Juliet Holness for contributing to the dangers from heavy rainfall.
Land titles were slow in coming, but yard after yard, they asserted their compliance with land taxes and lease agreements over the years. Any suggestions of squatting – especially regarding the homes that were hardest hit two weeks ago – are “out of order”, they argued.
“We want you to make it clear that we are no squatters. Everybody on Weise Road has a title or they are paying a lease. Some people over here buy their own land,” charged 74-year-old Carmeta Austin, whose two-storey house also hosts a community shop.
“Tell me now, squatters can build them breed a furniture house here ... and we don’t know when Government a come bulldozer we off? We nuh squatters!” charged the woman, listing food items destroyed as the roaring Chalky River overflowed its banks and flooded her business place.
For years, Austin said she had been paying lease to a now-deceased ‘Miss Walker’, who paid all her taxes. Now it is Miss Walker’s daughter who controls the agreement from overseas, she claimed.
The stories were similar door to door. Some residents, like Marcia Robinson, offered documents she managed to save from the floods as proof of cleared affairs.
She explained that she and her husband purchased the house through the National Housing Trust in 1994 and have been slowly upgrading it. Two weeks ago, however, it was among those on videos that went viral as floodwaters rushed through her community.
So far, administrators at the Mount Sinai Sacred Heart Church located on Weise Road said they have spent more than $320,000 in the last two weeks to clean up, having also suffered damage to musical equipment in the deluge.
That figure includes money for cleaning equipment and chemicals, lunches, and payment for church members who have been working tirelessly, lamented Bishop Royston Braham. It didn’t help that the river broke a water main in the community and so in the absence of the running commodity, they had to use water from their baptism pool to scrub tiles.
Braham rebuked the Government for its neglect of the Chalky River over the years.
“What happened is that the river used to be cleaned (dredged) very often, but for years, that river has not been cleaned; and I’m not just talking about by this Government alone, but the Government before as well. That is why the river came over the way it did,” argued Braham, noting that he has been operating at the Weise Road location for more than half a century.
“People always talk about things that they don’t know anything about. That is the typical Jamaican. When they talk about squatting, they are out of order,” he said.
“Most of the people in this area have titles for their homes. So when people talking about squatters, they just don’t understand,” said the bishop, noting that he has been paying the Government what is due unto them each year in property taxes.
Even formal communities may have to be moved
The Sunday Gleaner failed to confirm how prevalent the squatting problem was in the sprawling Bull Bay community last week, and efforts to contact MP Juliet Holness – who faced criticism for launching a GoFundMe account to help the affected constituents – were also unsuccessful. Up to Friday, however, almost $200,000 had been donated to the cause.
That information was of little relevance, however, according to Professor Simon Mitchell, a sedimentary geologist and head of the Earthquake Unit at The University of the West Indies, who toured the devastated St Andrew East Rural area with our news team last week.
Born in the United Kingdom, Mitchell has spent 25 years in Jamaica doing research on the geology of the island, including examining major faults in Bull Bay.
Most of the area, he said, is unstable due to several geological forces.
“You are dealing with relatively unstable banks of these river systems. These river systems can migrate, and if they move, they will take whatever they go through. This is one of the reasons why you have to think about training the rivers properly to try and prevent their migration,” he explained.
But not all sections of the river will be feasible to train, he noted.
“I think it depends on the place. In some places, you may not be able to train the river properly, and in those cases, it might be more feasible to move people – even formal settlements. They don’t always have to be squatters,” he said when asked about the State’s options.
“You see the same sort of thing in coastal defences, where you have places eroding a metre or two a year, and in some cases, it is easier to pay people to move,” he noted.
Mitchell found fault with the inadequate number of tractors cleaning the river, which were at two during our visit, and also with the short distance of the cleaning going upstream as well as the piling of the debris on the riverbanks.
“This only adds to the problems next time,” he argued, a point made by one contractor who blamed poor work by the National Works Agency for the disaster at Bull Bay.
“I have been here all my life and when I was a boy hopping truck, all 40-50 tractors you see in the gully cleaning at one time,” said resident Edwin Brown. “Now, they have two tractors in there and them not moving the things them anywhere so this won’t work.”