Hurricane Gilbert and the need for a politically independent class

Thursday, September 12, 2019

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Thirty-one years ago today, Hurricane Gilbert devastated Jamaica, as a category 3 storm, claiming an estimated 56 lives, pulverising the island's amenities and infrastructure and leaving behind damage put at roughly US$8 million or J$40 billion in 1988 dollars.

With the current chaotic state of the infrastructure, mainly road construction now happening, imagine what would happen if another hurricane of this magnitude struck Jamaica today.

Gilbert devastated all sectors of the society and the economy, especially rural farming communities, with damage to agriculture accounting for more than 40 per cent of the total loss.

Ninety-five per cent of all health facilities suffered damage, and it was estimated that more than 800,000 individuals sought shelter. A one-month state of public emergency was declared for St Thomas, St Catherine and Kingston and St Andrew.

One of the real positives of Gilbert was that it temporarily united Jamaicans in the recovery effort. People complained, as they are wont, about the inconveniences they were suffering and how long the recovery was taking.

But hardly anyone blamed it on politics. Of course this only lasted until the election of 1989 when the lingering problems of Gilbert became fair game for the political footballers. The ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) lost the election, largely as a result.

But during the moment of unity, we came possibly the closest to having an independent political class which saw the problems not with the usual partisan political lenses but as problems which as a country we needed to solve for the betterment of all.

The country could do with an independent political class right now as the buildout of infrastructure proceeds apace, to bring a dispassionate assessment to the road construction, in particular, which is going on mainly in the Corporate Area.

As things are, the deficiencies in design and execution are being seen as great or terrible depending on what side of the partisan divide one sits. Prime Minister Andrew Holness has dismissed complaints saying the critics need to think “big and bold”.

But there is need to acknowledge that there have been many shortcomings, and it would seem that not nearly enough pre-planning was done to avert some of the problems.

One obvious area of weakness is in the tremendous losses being experienced by businesses to which vehicular and pedestrian access has been totally cut off. Some have had to close their doors for long periods, laying off staff and facing uncertainty about future operations.

It is necessary to bear in mind that this construction has been going on for more than a year and is still far from completion in some cases.

With a more objective approach, consideration might have been given to closing off roads on a phased basis and preventing, as much as possible, the disruption of business activities, phone lines, water supplies and electricity, schools, social activities and, of course, traffic for such a long period.

There is the view that the governing party was driven by the need to win an election, hence the decision to carry out so many major projects at the same time without adequate planning. We'll see what price there is to pay.


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