Dithering while people die

Friday, November 02, 2012

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REGULAR readers of this column will know that we are in full support of the call for mandatory evacuation legislation made by Mr Desmond McKenzie in the House of Representatives on Tuesday this week.

Those readers, we believe, will also share our frustration at the fact that our parliamentarians have dithered on this issue for decades — to the detriment of the lives of many Jamaicans.

Just as annoying is Mr McKenzie's call for the creation of "no-build zones" to, as he correctly put it, ensure that no physical development that will endanger life and property takes place within these zones.

Our annoyance has its genesis in the fact that in August 2008, after the passage of Tropical Storm Gustav, Mr Bruce Golding, the then prime minister and leader of Mr McKenzie's Jamaica Labour Party, declared at a press briefing that the Government would not allow "one more block to be laid along the Hope River".

Mr Golding, you will recall, made that bold declaration after Gustav's flood waters swallowed several houses built on the banks of the Hope River.

In fact, it emerged at that time that that area was declared a "no-build zone" some years before, but was allowed to grow into a large informal settlement.

In June last year, Mr McKenzie raised the issue in the House, urging his colleagues — the people's representatives — to fast-track a "no-build zone" legislation, which includes the mandatory evacuation of danger zones during natural disasters.

Nothing has happened.

To his credit, Mr McKenzie doesn't seem to be prepared to let this issue slide. The country, therefore, should support him on this. For he is correct in stating that natural disasters have cost the country billions of dollars in relief and rehabilitation over the past decade.

He is also spot on that the damage caused by these natural disasters has "highlighted the vulnerability of some areas as well as the man-made factors which have contributed to that vulnerability".

We are convinced that the nonchalance displayed by legislators in relation to this issue is rooted in their blinkered view of the people living in these high-risk areas solely as voters, rather than for the fact that they are fellow human beings.

That evacuation from danger zones remains voluntary, despite years of debate, suggests that the issue is not important to those who are elected by the people.

Former Prime Minister P J Patterson who, if we're not mistaken, first raised this issue, must now be feeling that he wasted time and energy on what he, like us, believes is a very important matter.

We again acknowledge that any system of mandatory evacuation carries with it serious concerns of security for people's belongings. But as difficult as it is to leave valuable property in the face of approaching danger, people must appreciate that the preservation of life is more important than the protection of property.

The 2012 hurricane season will be over at the end of this month. It would be our pleasure not to pen another commentary such as this next year.




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