By Isaac Massaquoi
Is it that we never learn lessons from the havoc that torrential rains cause in our capital every year or we are just hopeless in the face of the elements? I can’t hear you now but I suspect you have already answered this question. If you said both, then we are together.
Heavy rains in the last week have virtually brought Freetown to a halt. Houses have collapsed and a few people killed. The city’s drainage system has failed, badly, as a result of which large parts are under water, debris has been washed unto the roads, and the already-chaotic traffic system is now totally impossible. A friend of mine told me that on Thursday last week he spent over three hours between Cline Town and Lumley.
If you can please go back to last week’s edition of this paper and see a comment we ran in our twitter column under the title Rain! Rain! Go Away and Come Another Day! That will help you appreciate or at least be prepared to read this piece through and not dismiss it as mere scare-mongering.
That comment basically attempted to portray the unpreparedness of the authorities and the nation to deal with what is essentially a yearly affair. We pointed out that like last year, Freetown would experience the usually heavy rains and the normal suspect areas like Kroo Bay would be flooded out, people occupying shacks in the mountains overlooking Freetown would suffer the normal deluge that more often than not lands huge boulders on their houses causing widespread destruction of life and property.
When we made those comments we didn’t do so on the basis of any solid meteorological forecast or seismological study that we had privileged access to. We were only behaving like the ordinary Sierra Leonean who is able to recall previous events to predict that if actions are not taken at the right time, events could repeat themselves one hundred times over.
We mentioned that people might lose their lives again this year from flooding and falling debris and it has happened. We said Kroo Bay in particular and areas like it that that continue to be scars on our collective consciences would once again receive severe battering from the rains. It also happened and inevitably politicians and NGOs with accompanying TV camera will soon pass through those areas to show how “committed” they are to the welfare of the people. As usual, like we suggested, politicians will talk about relocating people to better places and help them with micro-credit loans to start their lives anew. This sounds familiar to people who have lived in this city particularly in the years following the end of the war.
That’s the period when pressure intensified on the landmass of Freetown. Many of our people who poured into the capital when rebels pushed westwards, have still not returned to their original places of abode. For some of them they have nothing to return to. And for others, the pull of city life is just too strong for them to even think about going back to their little hamlets. If we add that to growing poverty for the average urban dweller, we will understand why people are building shacks in every little corner they can find, with or without the necessary paperwork. Why is it that trees are being indiscriminately cut down in Freetown for cooking and what is left of the whole forest cover of the city will soon be removed.
When news of those injuries, deaths, destruction and displacement came through it dawned on me once again that this country is totally unprepared for any serious national disaster. By the grace of God, Sierra Leone has been speared nature’s anger in the shape of earthquakes and so on. I really can’t imagine how we would respond if a Philippines-type typhoon were to hit this country.
We live in a country where we appear to take everything for granted. When the Bolton player, Fabrice Muamba collapsed and almost died during a football match, we asked how Sierra Leone would cope should an incident like that happen here. And that is a real possibility. Some of those who read the piece told me I was an alarmist. I am used to those kinds of comment so I merely took note. In this business, you don’t get worked up over everything people write or say. Aren’t we always accusing people of not doing things or that they are doing them badly? So we must also take a few blows. Anytime!
Well we don’t yet have a Fabrice Muamba-type situation at our National Stadium but I have witnessed too very serious incidents in less than two months when players have collapsed in the middle of matches. The first one was from Ports Authority. There was absolutely no proper first-aid facility at the stadium. Even Red Cross volunteers who are seen pretending to be doing something during international matches were nowhere to be seen. They are the next people the Minister of Sports will stop from entering the stadium unless they buy tickets because they are only interested in international matches.
Because Ports Authority is a relatively affluent club, the player was quickly evacuated to hospital for treatment. The second incident involved a player from Freetown City Football Club. His case was more serious. He was simply taken out of the field and water was poured all over his body. After nearly half an hour, he picked himself up and was taken out of the field by a friend of his who had to come down from the stands to help.
As a nation we have to admit that our emergency services are just completely absent. And we don’t seem to be making any effort to build them up to a position in which they would quickly intervene in difficult situations.
Every time I visit Youyi Building I ask myself how people will react in case of a fire incident. I have never seen any clearly marked escape routes out of the building when some serious emergency comes knocking. That’s the case for all public buildings.
The National Disaster Management office is located in the Office of National Security, or ONS. Let me be honest with you that I am not familiar with the job this unit was set up to do even though I think that by its nomenclature, it should be managing disasters on behalf of the government or coordinating response from all institutions involved. I also don’t know the budget they operate on, meaning that I cannot determine how much work they can do. What I am sure they know is that managing disasters begins from planning to avoid them.
Again, let’s be honest that we have allowed politics – all political parties are involved in this – to affect our fight against illegal settlements created by fearless land grabbers who appear to be operating outside the law. The Ministry of Lands under Tejan Kabbah created what it called a Green Belt beyond which no wood-cutting or construction shouldn’t take place. As usual the people tested the government’s resolve. Bobson Sesay moved in with the bulldozers and opposition parties then – now in power – charged at him calling him Broke Ose minister. We all behaved the same way with petty trading. That’s why Freetown is looking very much like a huge market place and the Green Belt is gone. In its place we have shacks where even people in remote villages cannot afford to live in.
Fighting such disasters starts with ONS making repeated demands on the government to implement their own policies. We need to have a cross-party approach to disaster management. That will prevent one party from shamelessly profiting from the toughness of a rival party on such issues. This business of ONS going on radio and TV every year to repeat the same lines about the people having been warned not to build houses in disaster-prone areas or that Kroo Bay and other seaside slum dwellers should re-locate to Grafton is becoming threadbare now and nobody is prepared to listen to such Sermons on the Mount.
We must be serious about our policies and let people feel the weight of the government for once. This lawlessness and government laissez-faire attitude to such issues as disaster management must stop. People are dying and suffering unnecessarily and avoidably.