“How will they ever recover from this?”
This is a phrase that I am sure we all have uttered many times while watching the scenes of destruction graphically played out on our television screens. We have had many natural disasters in recent years and every time we are genuinely shocked – for a while. We might make a charity donation to an Emergency Fund but generally we move on with our lives. Only when the disaster happens to us or to people we know are we fully emotionally involved. I have been fortunate in that I have never experienced a natural disaster at first hand but there are a number of occasions when it has happened in areas I know quite well. One such situation happened this month with the almost unprecedented destruction of parts of The Bahamas by Hurricane Dorian.
I know The Bahamas well, having worked there for many months on Business Continuity projects for the banking sector. I was hired a few years ago because of concerns about hurricanes, and the limited capability of the national infrastructure to survive such a severe storm if it hit the capital Nassau. For those who only know the country as a cruise ship stop or a luxury holiday break at Atlantis on Paradise Island, some context might help. The Bahamas is a collection of around 700 islands, many little more than large rocks, with less than 30 inhabited at all. Only around 15 of these have any significant population or tourist industry. The country is totally centralised around New Providence which is a tiny island of about 12 miles by 6 miles and houses the capital Nassau. Of a total Bahamas population of 390,000 nearly 70% live in Nassau itself.
In New Providence, you find the main international airport (Grand Bahama has a smaller one), the seat of government and judiciary, the central bank, all major commercial banks, other financial institutions and the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). A catastrophic disaster on another populated island will have a major impact on human life and property and of course a significant impact on tourist revenue. However the central functions in Nassau will continue and they have the resources and infrastructure to help stabilize the situation. If such disruption were to occur in New Providence, there would not be an equivalent capability elsewhere. Nassau forms the major hub for almost all national activities, with only Grand Bahama providing any form of support. The other islands are so remote that a bank I worked with monitored all weather activity, and in the event of a possible imminent hurricane, closed their branches on the island at risk, and brought all their staff and their immediate families to Nassau for safety
Despite the destruction caused by Dorian, very severe hurricanes in The Bahamas are fairly rare (1 category 5 and 7 category 4 since records began in 1851) and none of these have had a major impact on Nassau. Historically the most serious events have hit the islands of Abaco, Andros and Grand Bahama. Clearly the government must give funding priority to protection of lives and livelihoods in these purely tourism based island economies. At the last count the Prime Minister indicated that at least 60,000 people had no food, shelter or clean water. It was he said “the worst incident that had ever happened to his country”. The number of dead might never be fully known.
However, is this disaster just another tragic example of inadequate infrastructure in a poor country? The answer is no; in fact The Bahamas is a relatively rich country. It’s GDP per capita is the third highest in the Americas (only behind the US and Canada) and as well as its massive tourist industry it is a significant player in the world’s global off-shore banking industry. However, given its geography it is always going to be at risk, despite having professional emergency management and a well educated population at hand. For a small hotel owner on a remote island, enterprise resilience probably does simply mean survival but given the correct government policies and support it is surprising how quickly tourist economies can recover.
What Needs To Be Done
On a more strategic basis, Nassau is the critical point of failure and needs to be heavily protected. Modern buildings have to comply with a strict building code to withstand hurricanes. All commercial banks must have Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery in place as mandated by the Central Bank. No doubt central government has its own plans for continuance of government should a disaster occur. I would recommend that all of the components be tested together in an island-wide exercise. The scenario would be a category 5 hurricane hitting New Providence, structural engineers would advise on the buildings that would be lost, NEMA would look at potential casualties and hospital capacity. Banks would exercise their plans in these extreme circumstances as would all utility providers and public sector authorities. It is extremely likely that weaknesses will be found and that government spending will be needed to plug gaps and improve overall resilience. Longer term, it would be advisable to look at how a duplicate hub for critical public services could be established on Grand Bahama to take on those central functions that might be temporarily unavailable in Nassau. This is not a fool-proof solution as Grand Bahama is itself prone to hurricanes and could be impacted by the same disaster as Nassau – but it does help spread the risk in a highly centralised country.Recommended1 recommendationPublished in