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Minister: Disaster declaration could hurt Jamaica

Ingrid Brown

Thursday, November 01, 2012    

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DECLARING Portland a national disaster zone in the wake of the damage wreaked on the eastern parish by Hurricane Sandy could have adverse effects on Jamaica's tourism sector, the government has said.

Minister with responsibility for information, Senator Sandrea Falconer, who was responding to the call made by West Portland Member of Parliament Daryl Vaz for the parish to be declared a disaster zone, said this will send the wrong message to tourists unfamiliar with the geography of the country and who may be led to believe the entire island is affected.

"We declare Portland and St Thomas a disaster zone, people are not going to say it is confined to Portland," Falconer told journalists at yesterday's Jamaica House Press Briefing at the Office of the Prime Minister in Kingston.

Jamaica is open for business, she said, and the post-hurricane messages to the world should not appear contradictory.

This was supported by Director General of the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) Ronald Jackson, who argued that although more help would come from the international community, it would send the wrong message.

"While we have been impacted by Sandy, we are very much open for business and we are not about to declare a national disaster because it is not a national disaster in that context," Jackson told the briefing.

He conceded that when the country does not declare a national disaster, there is no rush for widespread international aid, however, he said this is replaced by sector-by-sector recovery support.

"You don't want to squander your 'get-out-of-jail-free' card in this particular situation when we are moving at pace to address some of the issues. We are still in the [hurricane] season and we have other hazards to deal with, and we want to make sure we have the ability to access support when that time comes," Jackson said.

The legislation which speaks to declaring anywhere a disaster area, he explained, is designed primarily to facilitate Government focusing its resources on addressing the needs of people in those zones. In the current situation, the Government is already directing resources to Portland, St Thomas and St Mary which were badly damaged during the passage of the category one hurricane, Jackson said.

"It is not a simple matter of just saying you are declaring a disaster area. In this case you have to define specific geographic spaces -- outlining population; so it is a little bit technical, and so it is not just simply verbally saying, 'we are declaring a disaster area', it has to be gazetted, and [there are] specific steps that go with that," he said.

He added further, "when you look at a population of 2.8 million people, we are seeing estimates of 3,500 houses across the spectrum of the communities affected, ... after each event there is some amount of discomfort and devastation experienced, but when you begin to weigh up these issues one has to ask: 'Is it a sensible decision to declare within that context?'"

But last night Vaz hit back, calling Falconer's comments "insensitive, hypocritical and baseless."

The previous Administration, he said, called limited states of emergency in several parishes following an upsurge in violence across several areas in 2010 with no negative impact on the tourism sector. This, he said, was the result of expert communications management, and that a similar strategy could be employed by the Government to minimise any adverse impact.

Vaz said, in light of Government's inability to access the necessary $4 to $5 billion in recovery support funding from its own finances, it must declare Portland, St Thomas and St Mary disaster zones and quickly open up more avenues for aide.

Yesterday, the ODPEM head reported that the agency is in the final phase of the initial humanitarian disaster response in eastern Jamaica, with the focus being on providing persons with temporary roofing.

Some 52 persons are still in shelters in Portland, St Mary and Manchester.

All hospitals, except for Annotto Bay in St Mary, are fully operational, and electricity has been restored to them.

The vector control programme which was suspended because of Hurricane Sandy has now resumed even as the number of dengue cases has risen to 2,198 with seven suspected deaths.

The National Works Agency said its efforts are concentrated mainly in St Thomas where there is ongoing work to repair five vehicular corridors to restore access to several communities.

Other areas slated for immediate attention Shaw said, include the Nolan Hill to Border main road and the gully network in Kingston and St Andrew, particularly in the areas of Valentine Gardens and Rousseau Road.

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