Address to the Nation following the passing of Hurricane Tomas
ADDRESS TO THE NATION
FOLLOWING THE PASSAGE OF HURRICANE TOMAS
HONOURABLE STEPHENSON KING, PRIME MINISTER AND MINISTER FOR FINANCE, ECONOMIC AFFAIRS AND NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT
Fellow Saint Lucians,
We all recall with various levels of emotion, the events of Saturday 30th October leading into Sunday 31st October 2010. We woke up that Friday morning looking forward to the Jounen Kweyol activities in our schools, business establishments, government offices and communities. We had anticipated that this was going to be a festive weekend, the Jounen Kweyol weekend, one of the highlights of the Saint Lucian cultural calendar.
Most of us were not deterred by the dark clouds that hovered over Saint Lucia that Friday, even as radio hosts forewarned of an oncoming storm, and the telecommunication networks sent text messages en masse warning that Tropical Storm Tomas was approaching our beautiful island. Perhaps for many of us, it was just another storm warning, which we have grown largely accustomed to, given that we are located in the hurricane belt. The inclement weather that ensued was for us insufficient indication of what was to come. We therefore went about our business pretty much as usual, but particularly caught in the euphoria of the celebrations.
Little did we know, that the next 24-48 hours, would be etched in the history of Saint Lucia as some of its darkest hours.
On October 30, Hurricane Tomas, a Category 1 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of 90 to 95 miles per hour, with higher gusts, swept through Saint Lucia leaving unprecedented devastation in its wake.
The excessive rainfall, 533mm in 24 hours caused rivers to burst their banks overflowing into towns and villages, washing away farms, vehicles, homes - leaving behind a path of destruction, and regrettably, families and communities in mourning.
On behalf of the Government and all Saint Lucians I extend sincerest condolences to the families who lost loved ones. To those whose family members are still missing, our thoughts and prayers remain with you in these trying times. The nation shares your grief. May you find some comfort in the knowledge that this Government will ensure that the memories of your loved ones are not forgotten. Undoubtedly counseling services will have to be provided to those who have been adversely affected, especially children who have been traumatized by the event or have lost loved ones.
The persistent rainfall meant that hillsides already compromised by a long drought earlier this year, were susceptible to landslides. The massive land slippages that dotted this country in the aftermath of Hurricane Tomas have altered the façade of our terrain in some places, forever. Towns and villages were overwhelmed with debris, fallen trees and silt. The fact that we were able to clean streets and roadways in the towns and villages within a relatively short time is a tribute to the Local Government workers in particular, and workers and citizens of Saint Lucia in general. It was also facilitated, in part, by an allocation of EC$3.7 million from the Government of Saint Lucia.
There was significant damage to the agriculture sector, road infrastructure, and the utilities sector. Damage to the country’s physical infrastructure meant that road networks were severely compromised, rendering many of the major roads impassable for days, disconnecting the North from the East, South and West of the island. Most road links which serve as sole access to rural communities were damaged and some were even washed away. Consequently, this hampered search and rescue operations immediately following the passage of the hurricane.
The agricultural sector endured much of Tomas’ fury, with the banana industry being completely decimated, amounting to a potential weekly loss of income of approximately EC$2.0 Million over the next six months. The Ministry of Agriculture has reported that an estimated 80 acres of land under open-field vegetable production were washed away, while a further 60% of greenhouses under production, sustained major damage. The fishing industry also incurred damage to the tune of EC$1.5 million.
The education sector was widely affected, with 15% of schools suffering extensive damage, and with reported damage to teaching material and computer equipment. It was necessary to close schools indefinitely partly because of the damage sustained to the physical infrastructure, but also because roads were impassable, some areas being without electricity for days and the non-availability of potable water.
Schools have since been reopened, effective last Tuesday, and whilst many of them have to function under very difficult circumstances, we believe that it is important to have our students back in the classroom, particularly those who must write CXC and A-level examinations next year. Our appreciation is extended to the teachers, principals, parents, staff of the Ministry of Education, and all of those who gave up their time to clean up the schools in order to ensure that we were able to reopen in a relatively short time.
The water sector was dealt a significant blow with all twenty eight (28) water production facilities being affected. Although much of the water supply has been restored, in the North of the island, there are still problems in the South and other parts of Saint Lucia, and full restoration will take some time and will require extensive rehabilitation.
Tomas unleashed its fury on unsuspecting communities in low lying areas such as Bexon which were inundated with water, and over six feet of silt in some cases, from the nearby river, which eventually merged with the Bexon highway. Residents in Bexon, Marc and neighbouring areas, for days after, were waddling through several feet of mud, trying desperately to salvage whatever possessions that had not been swept away by Tomas. Some people unfortunately lost everything. The rains of last week Thursday and Friday compounded the situation and further exposed the vulnerability of those low lying areas.
Residents on the island’s west coast felt the brunt of Tomas’ fury and the number of lives lost has not been conclusively determined. However, scores of people lost their homes in Soufriere and the nearby community of Fond St. Jacques where over three hundred persons have been displaced, and have been housed temporarily in six emergency shelters.
Soufriere is a key attraction in Saint Lucia’s tourism product. It is also home to several luxury hotels, a world heritage site and significant landmarks. For days following the hurricane, Soufriere remained accessible only by boat. The devastation to the town’s physical infrastructure, houses and utilities, will have long term effects on its architecture and landscape.
The town of Soufriere has been completely transformed by Hurricane Tomas. The quick rehabilitation of that town is critical to the recovery of the tourism sector and by extension the Saint Lucian economy.
The Private Sector suffered extensive damage. The Manufacturers, distributive and other commercial establishments were all affected. Tomas’ fury spared no one. The Manufacturers particularly in the south still suffer from absence of water and are not able to be in full production.
A team of experts led by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (UN ECLAC) have conducted a full socio-economic impact assessment of the damage. That study will provide an independent assessment of the damage to the country and a preliminary oral report has been presented to the Cabinet. Early estimates indicate that the total cost of Hurricane Tomas will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Saint Lucia will require all the resources it can muster both from local and external sources in order to fund the reconstruction programme.
Government’s response following the disaster had four basic objectives:
Firstly to search for and rescue those in distress or in danger,
Secondly, to ensure that the country was cleaned up and life returned to a state of normalcy within the shortest possible time,
Thirdly to provide relief to those in need , and
Finally, to fashion a reconstruction programme that would contain short, medium and long term elements.
Government immediately invoked the provisions of the Disaster Management Act to declare a State of National Disaster, and also declared a National Water Emergency. In addition, the following decisions were taken:
Duty Free concessions were granted on all relief supplies including water tanks, water purification equipment and supplies ,including building materials,
The annual barrel concessions at Christmas time were advanced to cover the period November 01, 2010 to January 31 2011.
Based on our assessments of the immediate needs, we disseminated information to our Regional and International partners, friendly countries, donor agencies and the Diaspora. Within a very short space of time relief supplies had started arriving into Saint Lucia. Whilst Government has facilitated the receipt of these supplies, we have left the distribution largely to the established agencies like the Red Cross and NEMO, free of any partisan political influence, and will continue in that manner.
We wish to open our hearts in appreciation to all who have and will come to our assistance in our time of need. They are too numerous to mention here, but I will of course thank each and every one of them individually in due course.
Even as we facilitate and administer relief to those in need, we have been preparing for the longer term response. This response will include addressing the needs of those currently in shelters, assessing the situation in communities which may have to be relocated, including the conduct of geotechnical studies to determine suitability of these areas for human habitation.
But in order to return life to a sense of normalcy work is already on-going in the de-silting of rivers and main channels; the restoration of the road network; and the critical needs of WASCO in Water Catchment areas. Whilst almost the entire island is now accessible by road, we have also sought external assistance in addressing the above mentioned areas.
Putting Saint Lucia and Saint Lucians back to work is a key Government objective.
We cannot continue to do things as before. Tomas has taught us the necessity to change our lifestyles, the way we live, the way we build, the way we farm, the way we manage our resources, the way we treat our environment and the way we deal with our waste. It cannot be business as usual; we have to set new standards and abide by them. Adaptation, mitigation and resilience must underscore everything that we do from now on.
In order to manage the reconstruction effort, government has established within the Ministry of Finance, Economic Affairs and National Development, a National Reconstruction and Development Unit. This unit will be staffed with the necessary expertise in Project Design, Planning, Management and Implementation and will be given specific tasks to achieve within specified timeframes. In short it will be required to deliver results.
A recovery Committee has been established within the Ministry of Finance, Economic affairs and National Development, with sub-committees to address issues such as Resource Mobilization, Accountability and Procurement, Public Relations, Project Preparation, Socio-Economic Impact Assessment and Needs Assessment,
But Government recognizes that it cannot do this alone. The task of rebuilding this country requires the participation of us all. In that regard, Cabinet has been giving consideration to the establishment of the necessary institutional framework to facilitate the participation of as wide a cross section of the society as possible in the reconstruction effort.
Towards this end, a National Reconstruction Task Force will be constituted comprising of the following,
The Prime Minister as Chairman,
Three (3) other members of the Cabinet
Two members nominated by the Opposition
Representatives of the Private Sector, the Trade Unions, The Christian Council, Service Clubs, among others.
The Secretariat of this Task Force will reside within the National Reconstruction and Development Unit.
I have already invited the Opposition to one meeting and we had very productive discussions, the results of which are already being felt. We committed ourselves to working together in the interest of the country and continuing the dialogue.
I have also met with the private sector organizations with whom I had fruitful discussions and they have committed unequivocally to support the reconstruction programme and working with the government in the interest of the country. I thank them profoundly for these sentiments.
It has often been said that situations of adversity bring out the best in Saint Lucia and Saint Lucians. Already we have seen the dedication and commitment displayed by the Engineers and the various crews from the Ministry of Communications, Works, Transport and Public Utilities and other persons involved in the cleanup effort. Some of them have worked for almost twenty four hours in a day with hardly any sleep and yet they return on the following day to contribute to the effort.
The stories of persons helping each other, in often treacherous circumstances, the acts of bravery in lending support and helping each other; the numerous volunteers from all over the country who have come forward to help in their communities, in Soufriere and in other parts of the country are reflective of the true Saint Lucian spirit, of all that is Saint Lucian.
I wish to take the opportunity now to publicly thank all of those workers, all of those volunteers, with NEMO, Red Cross the Private Sector, Churches, Community Organisations, the various District Disaster Committees and other service organizations, without whose efforts the situation could have been considerably worse. The Government of Saint Lucia salutes all of you for putting country before self, for your selflessness, your devotion, your dedication.
The rest of the country must adopt your example, and come forward together for the benefit of our country. WE MUST REBUILD THIS COUNTRY TOGETHER; all of us no matter what colour, what creed, what political party we belong to.
We shall not and must not forget those who perished. Government has always been committed to honouring their memory appropriately, even as we live in hope that those unaccounted for may yet show up.
Notwithstanding the difficulties, I believe this could be a defining moment in our history and we should seize the opportunity to start afresh. But it will take the collective efforts of all of us to navigate our country through these tragic circumstances.
There is something embedded in every Saint Lucian that equips us to survive difficulties such as this, and that is our sense of civic responsibility and strong sense of community.
We have to send the message to the international community that we need assistance. However, at the same time we need to show that we are willing to help ourselves. It is imperative that we show that we are committed to this effort at national reconstruction, by assisting our neighbours and communities, especially those worst affected. I urge all Saint Lucians to engage in clean-up campaigns in our communities, and generally give freely of our time. Let us rekindle the spirit of volunteerism that was once part of our contribution to our country.
As I walked through the communities most affected by Hurricane Tomas, I witnessed the greatest demonstration of the biblical edict “I am my brother’s keeper”. It is that spirit above all else that will see us reaching out to one another at a time of need such as this.
I thank you and may God bless you and keep your families safe.
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