EDITORIAL: Let’s learn from White Hill fiasco
Whether or not we like it, the hand of Mother Nature has determined that the community of White Hill, St Andrew, will be in the news for a considerable time into the future.
This truly rural community in the heart of the Scotland District has been the scene of numerous recorded landslides for almost four decades, and consequently the source of tremendous suffering for a large number of families.
Last month’s landslide, which cut off the southern access into the village from Hillaby, has made an already challenging situation more difficult for residents and a solution considerably more expensive for the Government. What we hope, however, is that by the time the whole matter has been resolved, the country would have learnt a few important lessons.
One of the first ought to be that Government officials, particularly members of the Cabinet, should refrain from making instant policy decisions – especially when it is with on-the-spot advice from technocrats. We believe that Minister of Transport and Works Michael Lashley meant well when he announced during a tour of White Hill immediately after the landslide that the road would be abandoned, but it was a decision taken before all sides were consulted.
At least he has redeemed himself by abandoning the plan to abandon the road. The community does not now have to die. But that does not mean there does not have to be substantial relocation of homes in the district. We suspect that a majority of Barbadians have no idea how precariously some of these residents have been living for years because of previous movement of the land, and would be shocked if they visited.
One only has to look at the sagging roofs, badly cracked walls, houses on hillsides with half the foundation missing, abandoned buildings or pieces of collapsed roofs hidden between bushes in the gully to see the suffering that many have endured.
It is a picture of years of neglect by authorities – plans to shift residents that started and just died and homes that were moved from the danger zone only to be replaced by new adventurers.
Does Government have the power to forcibly evacuate residents who are in danger but who don’t want to move? Should the state have that power? Does it have the authority to forcibly evict those who build after someone is removed from a lot? Should a utility company be compelled by law to obtain the approval of an agency such as the Soil Conservation Unit before it can connect service to someone in an area such as White Hill?
Perhaps we should also focus on regimes and penalties for state agencies that fail to act within a certain time when such emergencies arise. Should an authority like the Department of Emergency Management have the power to declare somewhere a disaster area? Or to recommend that such be done? And if so, what mandatory responses should that declaration trigger? Should agencies be mandated by law, for example, to move residents out of harm’s way by a specified time or face some kind of reprimand or other penalty?
We do not believe it should be par for the course that the state determines that a family is in imminent danger and four years later, the family is still living there while an agency casually builds a replacement home, and even when the home is completed, the paperwork that would allow the family to take possession is still not done.
The White Hill lessons are so many that we ought to learn something from this decades-long fiasco.