Flood-shy Treasure Beach residents await another shot at completing drainage canal
People of Treasure Beach, Great Bay fret whenever it rainsSunday, October 10, 2021
BY GARFIELD MYERS
TREASURE BEACH, St Elizabeth — For residents of this community, and more particularly the Great Bay area, the floods of mid-October 2005 triggered by Hurricane Wilma, which passed south of Jamaica, was unlike anything before or since.
Run-off water from the more than 2,000-feet-high Santa Cruz Mountains, caused by heavy, persistent rain, led to the merging of the fresh-water Great Pond and a number of satellite ponds which are among tourist-friendly Treasure Beach's more idyllic features.
Within a few days the ponds had evolved to a huge lake stretching close to a half mile in length and width, covering homes, guest houses, farms, pasture land and the community road linking the Great Bay fishing beach to the outside world.
Scores of people had to vacate homes, and for weeks small fishing boats came into use as public transportation, ferrying marooned folk to and from the lower 'dockside' — adjacent to a restaurant and shop, the 'Sea Crab', owned by the Rochester family — to dry land at 'One Mile Post', upland from the Great Bay fishing beach.
Great Bay “born and grow” resident and supermarket owner Hughlet Dyght chuckled as he recalled how seeing signs of the flood to come, he drove one of his two cars in the rain from his home upland, to his business place on the fishing beach, to make sure he would be mobile at both ends.
“People were totally marooned… it was something that none of us will ever forget. I know that in all my years of living in Great Bay I had never seen rain or flooding like that,” said Dyght, a losing candidate for the Pedro Plains Division representing the People's National Party (PNP) in three local government elections, and a former grade one National Premier League football referee.
As an immediate outgrowth of the flood, then Member of Parliament for St Elizabeth South Western, the late Danny Buchanan, initiated an ambitious hundreds-of-metres-long drainage project in early 2006, referred to at the time as a “canal” from the Great Pond to the sea at Old Wharf.
The original plan was for the drain to be three metres deep, eight metres wide and covered in concrete. The project was to be done in phases with the first phase slated at the time to cost $30 million.
The excavation work was eventually completed after stops and starts, but the project as originally planned remains undone with only a fraction of the drain having a concrete finish.
Real fears in the early years that the drain would lead to the collapse of nearby homes as water ate away at the embankment, gradually faded as fast-growing trees and shrubbery served to bind the soil with their root system.
There were also concerns at the time about environmental damage which apparently have also faded.
Most residents now say the unfinished drain has been a “saviour” for Great Bay and the wider Treasure Beach, largely serving its purpose of taking water to the sea in times of heavy rain when the Great Pond and its satellites overflow.
While emphasising that the situation “is not ideal” and the drainage project needs to be completed, Treasure Beach hotelier Jason Henzell is among those insisting that the unfinished drain “has done a lot to pretty much save the community (from devastating flooding).”
Henzell said: “It works…”
He has consistently advocated over a period of years for a comprehensive drainage plan for Treasure Beach which would involve engineers recommending “where to build and where not to…”
Henzell and others have argued that a major reason for the flood of October 2005 and lesser episodes before and since was the blocking of natural drains by unknowing land developers in an area that is among Jamaica's most fast growing; and which has evolved down the years from a complex of remote fishing villages to a haven for community tourism.
Currently, every time there is heavy rain such as was caused last month by passing storm systems, people in Great Bay and the wider Treasure Beach fret at the memory of the unprecedented flood of October 2005.
For that reason, a recent pledge by Everald Warmington, minister without portfolio with responsibility for works including roads, drains and related infrastructure, to revisit the unfinished drainage project, is welcome news for the south coast seaside community.
During a chance encounter with the Jamaica Observer news team at the tailend of an observation tour, Warmington said he had instructed the National Works Agency (NWA) to “scope” the extent of the work required to complete the unfinished drain in Treasure Beach and to “give an idea of the cost”.
Warmington, a trained engineer, said he wants to resume the job of reinforcing the floor of the drain with concrete.
For him, the trip to Treasure Beach came at the tail end of a tour of St Elizabeth South Western, constituency of former Agriculture Minister Floyd Green. The latter, recently resigned his Cabinet post, following alleged breaches of the Disaster Risk Management Act.
Warmington said he had visited a range of flood prone communities, some close to the Black River, including Slipe and Crawford, and others further away such as Giddy Hall, Newell, Barbary Hall, Pedro Cross, and Round Hill.
The minister said he had seen the evidence of damaged roads, largely caused by inadequate drainage and would be seeking to improve the situation with “comprehensive drainage projects” wherever possible. This was despite the high degree of difficulty in some places, including proximity to the Black River Morass and other factors such as steep terrain.
“My policy and the policy of the Government is that you can't put in roads without drains, there must be a comprehensive drainage system for rehabilitation. That's the policy if this Government… Whatever is to be done — I can't design for the engineers — I am saying there has to be a comprehensive drainage system,” Warmington said.
When contacted by telephone, Green emphasised that while much of the work (to improve roads and drains) will be challenging and expensive, it will be done in phases to ensure efficiency and sustainability.
“If even to do 500 metres at a time, that's what will be done to make sure the work is done properly and can stand up,” he said.
According to Green, “The plan is to look at each area (and spend accordingly) while asking 'how can we do the road in such a way that it can stand up?'”.
He welcomed Warmington's pledge to restart the drainage project at Treasure Beach, pointing out that “when the Great Pond (at Great Bay) floods, it has a knock-on effect on the entire Treasure Beach”.