‘It doesn’t take anything for MoBay to be flooded’
- St James residents, business operators worried as hurricane season approaches
It has been one year since Christine Gilbert watched as her 12-year-old daughter’s lifeless body was fished from the waters of Freeport in Montego Bay, St James, after the car in which she was travelling was swept away by the murky floodwaters of the Barnett River.
She still agonises over the thought of her child, Jennel Walters, in panic as she and her grandmother, Beryl Walters, were pushed into a culvert by the force of the water to their end.
Four family members were in the vehicle when it washed away during heavy rainfall on April 19, 2022. Jennel’s grandfather Berris Walters and aunt Shannon Walters were rescued.
The body of 68-year-old Beryl Walters was never found.
The passage of time has done little to lessen the intensity of the grief the family feels. In fact, Gilbert said it feels like yesterday, with vivid memories of her daughter continuing to flood her mind. She describes it as an overwhelming pain, a wound that refuses to be healed, yet she must be strong for her other three children.
“I was at home when I got the news and that was when my life turned upside down … it is as if everything had just gone,” she shared with The Sunday Gleaner last week. “While they searched I was hoping for the best, I just was not ready to accept that she could be gone.”
“It will always be hard,” she said with a deep sigh.
“So many things go through my mind when the heavy rains start, but I just hope another family is not allowed to go through such an agonising experience.”
Gilbert is disappointed that nothing has been done to improve the city’s infrastructure to mitigate the flooding after the family tragedy but theorised that they might have more important things to focus on.
“Maybe it is a matter of prioritising and this might not be a priority at this time,” she quipped.
ACTION, NOT TALKING
Montego Bay has been grappling with the issue of devastating flooding for the past two decades. Intense rainfall for just a short period can lead to catastrophic effects, including the tragic loss of lives.
Stakeholders believe rapid urbanisation and improper land-use practices have played a significant role in worsening the problem. Unplanned construction, including the filling of wetlands and improper building on floodplains, has reduced the natural capacity of the land to absorb water, increasing surface run-off during rainfall.
And some fear the multibillion-dollar Montego Bay Perimeter Road project now under way will cause more challenges if the necessary infrastructural work is not done.
“It has been a long-standing concern among business operators, especially in downtown Montego Bay,” said Davon Crump, former president of the Montego Bay Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MBCCI).
“What this needs is action, not talking because as we speak more buildings are being approved, yet the supporting infrastructure is not upgraded.”
Crump also argued that unlawful practices by both residents and business operators exacerbate the problem.
Dr Theresa Rodriguez-Moodie, CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), has identified choke points along sections of the gullies that are restricting the flow of water, and contributing to the issues.
Washed-down sediments, garbage, and vegetation worsen the blockage at these points, she believes.
“While informal settlements continue to flourish on the edge of gullies, housing developments are being approved and built in the upper catchments of these watersheds. Garbage disposal is chaotic and garbage infrastructure and collection are inadequate,” Rodriguez-Moodie stated in her observations after touring the problem-plagued communities.
Kerry Thomas, councillor for the Mount Salem division in the St James Municipal Corporation, who also served as project manager for several major developments under the previous political administration, has long maintained that the entire drainage system throughout Greater Montego Bay needs immediate attention.
“The city has done nothing to fix the problem,” he said, “What they have done is allow more houses to be built to create more run-offs.”
But Janel Ricketts, the National Works Agency’s communications officer for western Jamaica, is maintaining that her entity is ready for any eventualities. “We did quite a bit of work and our technical team is at the heart of these decisions,” she said.
NO DRAINAGE IMPROVEMENT IN DECADES
During its community meeting with residents of Irwin to discuss the impact of the long-awaited Montego Bay bypass two weeks ago, Errol Mortley, environmental manager at the National Road Operating and Constructing Company (NROCC), mentioned that work would be done to improve drainage leading into the town centre, but Thomas, a civil engineer by profession, said he has cautioned the Steven Edwards-led entity against using outdated studies.
“What NROCC has presented to us at the corporation is not current and it needs to be current because you will be interfering with the entire topography around the city of Montego Bay, which is already on a hillside with a limited number of tributaries that carry all the water to the ocean,” Thomas explained to The Sunday Gleaner.
“The highway itself will take a lot of land and create more surface run-offs and while the highway will have its own drainage, that water must go somewhere, so you must deal with the throughput for the water to go to the ocean.”
He continued, “Other than the South Gully project about 25 to 30 years ago, there has been no drainage improvement for Montego Bay, so the highway and the drainage must be done simultaneously.”
Efforts to contact Steven Edwards, managing director of NROCC, were unsuccessful, but Janel Ricketts explained that NROCC will spearhead a comprehensive drainage survey to determine the way forward.
As the hurricane season approaches, with forecasters predicting 17 storms, seven of which are likely to become hurricanes with four of them expected to be major storms, Montego Bay residents and business operators are worried.
“We should not sit by, we must be vigilant or we will find the highway complete and water guided to our drainage system and soon you will find water going places it was not expected to go,” a business operator along Barnett Street said. “As we have learned over the years, it does not take anything for MoBay to be flooded.”
Winston Maragh, in his capacity as the president of the Association of Local Government Authorities, said he expects all local authorities to be ready for the hurricane season. However, checks by The Sunday Gleaner news team revealed that only three municipal corporations have started staff training with days to go for the start of the 2023 Atlantic Hurricane Season.