Speech by the Prime Minister

Statement on Damage from Tropical Storm Zeta – Prime Minister Andrew Holness

To the Houses of Parliament

At Jamaica Conference Centre


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

at 2:00 pm

Thank you, Madam Speaker. Thank you, members, for obliging me to make this presentation.

Madam Speaker as is our practice our statements will be provided to the leader of opposition business and the opposition spokesperson, I believe that is being done now.

Madam Speaker, the rains we experienced over the last few days were in part due to a broad area of low pressure over the western Caribbean, which is usual for the month of October and sometimes into November.  However, we also had to contend with the of outer bands of Tropical Storm Zeta which developed west of Jamaica.

The traditional peak of the September to November primary rainfall season occurs in October and is expected to provide enough rainfall to last through the December to March dry period and from what we have seen though we have not had the official report from the MET office, we have had significant rainfalls which we hoped would have recharged our aquifers, certainly, our dams have been filled to capacity now.

Madam Speaker, you will recall that in 2018 around this time we had heavy rainfall across the Island and flooding in some areas, for example in May Pen I believe during that period of time one youngster perished in flooding. Various climate   phenomenon such as La Niña can result in increased tropical cyclone activity and the development of rainfall in the Caribbean, this representing greater variability in weather patterns.   

However, we must also contend with the real effects of climate change on our weather and environment, which leads to more intense weather events and rainfall episodes (higher volumes over shorter periods of rainfall), as well as more intense and longer lasting periods of droughts. So with 34 days remaining in the Hurricane Season, that is the 2020 hurricane season, this year has now tied with 2005 for the largest number of named storms in any Season on record. Our government is informed by the science; and expects and plans for these weather events. Though admittedly, it is difficulty to predict with certainty, the intensity and duration of the weather events when they happen.

Currently, the advice from the Met Office is that a High Pressure Ridge is dominating in our area with fairer weather today, however this could change again on Thursday when another Trough enters our area and could again increase rainfall in our country for another few days. This, therefore, will inform our response tactic to the weather events. There are some areas for which it make not make sense to address until after the rains have subsided for example those areas that may have soil stability issues, but then there are other areas which you must address before the next spell of rainfall particularly those areas that are likely to flood so we take the break that we’re given to clear drains, clear gullies to make sure that when the next spell of rain happens there’s no flooding.

Madam Speaker, the torrential rains associated with Tropical Storm Zeta that spanned six days, from October 19 to 25, have severely impacted several communities across the island.  There have been reports of damage to road infrastructure in all fourteen parishes. Regrettably, Madam Speaker, a landslide in the Shooters Hill area of St. Andrew resulted in the death of two persons – a father and his 15 year old daughter.  The Government is deeply saddened by this event and we offer sympathies and indeed our support to the family and the community.

The National Works Agency (NWA) has been mobilizing equipment and personnel to clear blocked roads and restore access to communities.

The NWA’s preliminary assessment is that over 80 roads island-wide were severely affected by various rain-related events such as landslides, mud flows, downed trees, washed out bridges, undermined roadways or inundation which rendered some communities inaccessible and even marooned.

The preliminary assessment indicates that the southern parishes were more affected than the northern parishes.

Madam Speaker, I have been informed by the NWA, and they specifically asked me to make this point that based on inspection and field reports that they have conducted, none of the recently completed roads – Constant Spring Road, Hagley Park Road, Barbican Road and Camp Road – have been adversely affected. This is contrary to some of the statements that are being made publicly.

Madam Speaker, I am informed that we now have six (6) corridors, including the Bog Walk Gorge in St. Catherine that remain closed. I expect that the Bog Walk Gorge will be reopened today, based on where the NWA would have reached with the cleaning and clearing exercise. I am advised that several truckloads of sand and debris were removed, and special equipment had to be brought in to break up/ remove huge boulders, dislodged from the hillsides.

The other roads that remain impassable are:

  1. Old Harbour to Bartons (Big Pond), St. Catherine
  2. Rock River to Ginger Ridge and Thompson Town to Victoria, Clarendon
  3. Papine to Bull Bay, St. Andrew at Cane River and
  4. Milk River to Alligator Pond in Manchester.

Heavy Deposit of Sand along the road in Bog Walk Gorge

Madam Speaker, the estimate for flood damage included in the report that has been presented by the NWA is preliminary as the Agency is unable to access all points in the field in order to comprehensively assess the extent of the damage to infrastructure and the cost of permanent repairs.

The preliminary damage estimate Madam Speaker is close to $2 billion JMD. And my assessment from what I’ve been seeing and what has been reported is that the estimate will rise significantly. This covers road clearance, drain cleaning, creating access and patching but does NOT include the cost of permanent repairs and major rehabilitation so this $2 billion would  only cover what will be needed for example to clear the gorge or the roadways that have been made impassable, certain landslides and land slippage to patch certain roads to allow for the smooth flow of traffic and to undertake the clearing of gullies and drains but if there were, for example, a collapsed bridge or a collapsed road that would not be in this $2 billion amount.

Madam Speaker, in addition to the impact on the NWA roads, there has also been significant impact on parochial roads.

60% of the parochial roads were affected with the KSA, St. Catherine, Clarendon and Manchester were those greatly impacted.  This estimate is being finalized but preliminary indications are that damage to parochial roads and drain networks will run in excess of 700 million dollars.

  A section of the Thompson Town to Victoria road 

Madam Speaker, based on the extent of damage and the costs, all the required works cannot be done immediately. Accordingly, the Government is proposing a programme of targeted interventions with a priority ranking as follows:

  1. Re-opening of blocked roads;
  2. Cleaning of critical drains, which are now heavily silted;
  3. Patching of main thoroughfares.

Madam Speaker, the Government recognizes that the Christmas season will soon be here. It is also the time when we undertake our cyclical maintenance and mitigation work programmes on public infrastructure across the island.  An element of our routine maintenance programme is driven on a constituency basis and is usually referred to (traditionally) as the Christmas Work Programme.

So I just want to remind our members of parliament that there is no separate programme for Christmas work as distinct from routine cyclical maintenance and mitigation. It so happens that at the end of the rainy season, that is the October to November rainy season, we enter upon a period of mitigation, rehabilitation and that coincides with Christmas and what has happened traditionally is that we call this cyclical mitigation programme Christmas work. Over the last four years we have changed the nature of how that programme has traditionally been executed and indeed more than changed the nature, we have expanded the programme.

I recall when I came into the parliament the programme was somewhere in the region of a hundred and fifty thousand/ five hundred thousand Jamaican dollars, certainly when Minister Samuda was in the parliament it would have been far less. Now, members of parliament can look forward to in excess of ten million dollars towards mitigation and rehabilitation work at Christmas time in their constituency, but it is NOT separate from the normal cyclical rehabilitation work that is done.

I’m making this point madam speaker because we do not have unlimited resources and therefore we will have to use the cyclical mitigation programme and augment it with reallocation that we have had to decide upon to address the fallout as a result of the rainfall. One of the reasons madam speaker, why I am making the statement at this point in time is that I’ve had to be involved in an exercise to go through certain areas of the budget in order to make reallocations so that the government is able to…

The minister of finance was sitting there with naked breath to hear me say this statement that this is about reallocation and not about new funding as we’ve already gone through the second supplementary estimates and therefore there is no additional funding for the government’s response; this is now about each ministry, each minister, each permanent secretary going through the budget line item by line item to see what it is that we can reallocate and this will be supervised obviously by the ministry of finance and I did that process today going through the ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation budget to see what we would be able to do and I was supported in that regard by the minister of labour and social security who went through his budget to see what he can do to ensure that those who have been affected island wide that there is some response for them.

I see the minister of tourism is nodding, he will tell me that he doesn’t have a budget that can be reallocated but i recommend to all the ministers here to look in your budget very carefully to see what we can do in terms of reallocation to ensure that all Jamaicans who have been dislocated and severely impacted by these heavy rain that there is some form of outreach to them.

Madam Speaker, we do not have the unlimited resources and therefore we must be strategic in how we allocate and use those scarce resources. Therefore, the cyclical mitigation programme will begin shortly and lead into the Christmas period and will be augmented to address the repair and rehabilitation works associated with the rains that will total approximately $2 billion.

At this time, we will be budget to expend JA$1 billion to directly address damage due to the rains, and this is to be used directly by the NWA according to areas of greatest national need and strategic importance to the productivity of the economy. So that is immediately as soon the ministry of finance is able lay hands on those funds that will be available to start the rehabilitation and repair process according to the strategic direction that was given earlier so we will be looking at clearing blocked roads, desilting drains and clearing drains and patching roads but the overall strategic perspective of course is we will have to look at where the areas of greatest need and something we have to come to terms with Madam speaker in this constituency. Yes, the rain falls on everyone’s housetop, but some houses got damaged more significantly than others. Not all constituencies face the same levels of damage and dislocation. The NWA has to look carefully at where the damage is and use the $1 million accordingly and then Madam speaker you would have seen the reports about the impact of the pandemic on our economy, the falloff in economic growth, and the subsequent falloff in employment. Any resource and allocation and expenditure must have in mind how we’re going to stimulate the economy and how we’re going to ensure that we get the economy back on full production so we have to look at the roads and infrastructure that we need to get back to full operation in order to support the economy and the NWA has been so guided.

Furthermore, Madam Speaker, in addition that is to the $1 million, each constituency will be allocated $1.5 million from the Housing Fund to assist with repairs to housing infrastructure that has been brought to the member of parliament.

Some MPs even though I’m getting a good rapping on the desk, there are those who are petrified of such announcement but what is heard a figure multiple of this and the pressure will start to build. I wish to say that the $1.5 million it may sound like a large sum but if you were to consider that over a hundred houses that you may have to address it doesn’t come down to much and therefore I’m urging constituents to be reasonable. It’s a difficult time I understand but the government has to operate within the boundaries of its resources and this is what we’re doing but this is the start as we go through and decide on reallocation we may be able to do more but this is so that MPs are not flatfooted in the face of requests and I know as you go through your constituency and I will be going into my constituency and as I planned my island-wide tour to actually see the adage first-hand we may have to make other allocations to support the response but we will begin with $1.5 million from the Housing Fund for each member of parliament for each constituency rather and in addition to that madam speaker, we will give each constituency and allocation of $1.5 million from the Ministry of Labour and Social Security for rehabilitation grants for the neediest cases that are brought to the attention of the MP so in effect constituencies will have a $3 million Early Response Fund which you should consider this a part of the cyclical mitigation programme, it’s just that you’re getting it a little bit earlier.

Madam Speaker, disasters such as this expose the importance of proper urban and rural planning. Madam Speaker, you will note that in this iteration of the administration, this new term, we have both an element distinctly defined for urban renewal in the government a ministry that is focussing on that and the ministry of local government is also configured such to focus on rural development. It was a considered position madam speaker because we recognized as I said earlier in my presentation that climate variability and climate change and more intense weather events will have a significant impact on how our economy and our society develops.

We have for a long time Madam Speaker, not taken water and climate as a significant element of consideration in how we design and build and plan our city and our built environment, that cannot continue to be the case.

I’ve been listening keenly and following the public discourse on the flooding that has taken place in various areas and in particular in the corporate areas regarding our roads. Much of the conversation has centred upon the quality of workmanship, the absence of drain and gullies, and let me be clear Madam Speaker, that we cannot discount that that we have shoddy workmen, shoddy contractors, we can’t discount that. We cannot discount that supervision of works can be much better than it currently is, that is not to be discounted but I would also want the public commentators who are very important and influential in widening and deepening the public understanding about these issues and which will inure the correct response from the public when the government puts forward policy. The public debate therefore should also consider that we have not done any major infrastructure upgrade and improvement to account for the variabilities that are happening in our climate and the impact of climate change. We are still depending on the Sandy Gully to take off water off Kingston but then the Sandy Gully was built significant areas of Kingston was not developed. We don’t consider that each new road that we pave, each new roof that we build, each new roof that we build, each new house that we build with a roof that has a runoff increases the volume of water that has to be carried the gullies that were built 50 years ago and the drains that were built 50 years ago, we don’t talk about that and when we go to be stringent on the building codes and the building plans and regulations and there is this constant struggle between loosening the building requirements so that more construction can happen and more houses can be built versus protecting the environment and securing the property that we currently have and the public infrastructure. The drains that we have that were built 50 years ago simply cannot carry the volume of water that comes now both as a result of climate variabilities and climate change more intense weather events that are happening but also we have impacted our own environment by paving much more areas and having more roads so the percentage of permeable area that we have to allow for water seepage into the soil is gone so the water has to go somewhere so it is going to go on our roads and hopefully it will get into some of the drains but there is also the other factor. It is one thing that the drains are small, but the drains are also blocked because unfortunately Madam speaker, we use our drains and gullies as garbage disposal areas.

So, it’s one thing that the drains carrying capacity might be small but if there is a tree branch that is turned perpendicular to the flow of the drain and then that tree branch is then further blocking plastic bottles and mattresses and beds and all kinds of things that are thrown into the gullies so that no water can move then you will definitely have flooding so the conversation about the flooding and the other impacts must also carry these significant points that our climate and weather is variable, there is this overarching phenomenon of climate change which is making variable weather even more intense and then how we as human beings choose to treat our environment is also having an impact.

So Madam Speaker, the intention behind having rural development as a distinct part of a portfolio and urban development as a distinct part of the portfolio is precisely to address this question as to what type of built environment we’re going to have and how will people in this environment live and respond to the environment, that’s a real question; that’s the real purpose of the new ministry of urban development/ urban renewal and rural development because Madam speaker, we have to now put in place policies that will seek to ensure that we get Jamaicans to choose to live where it is environmentally safe.

I’m making this presentation Madam Speaker knowing well that there is no edict that the government can give that will change what has happened centuries now, it’s not going to change it overnight.

Madam Speaker, when emancipation was fought for and eventually won in this country, our forefathers decided not to stay on the plantations but to take to the hills where they could genuinely and truly secure their freedom. It may have been fine then to put a little thatch, a little tatu somewhere and build and clear some land and farm but as we now become our own state and society we control this place now, we’re not running and hiding from anybody and in the face of these significant weather events houses perched on hillsides which have been denuded we know those houses are going to be at risk , that is the case.

We know we’re going to have landslides, houses built on marginal lands such as on gully banks, we know that when there is significant rain which we know will come because of the weather events that we’re now having which are more intense, these houses are going to be flooded out. At some point as a society, we must come to the understanding that you cannot choose to go and live anywhere you feel. There are some areas that we will have to declare as no-build zones and there are some areas regardless of the political implications if we could only reach across the island shake hands on it and come to an understanding on it that there are some communities which shouldn’t be where they are. Madam Speaker, we shouldn’t wait until there is a disaster and then we come and say well they settled there irregularly, and it is their fault.

We know that it is their fault. We know that there is going to come a weather event and we’ve seen it, the landslide that happened in East Rural St Andrew where unfortunately as I’ve said  2 persons perished, you can see that that’s a difficult place to build and we’ve seen houses that are perched on hillsides as the solid moves because it has become inundated with rain, those houses are at risk. We’ve seen people building on gully banks and as soon as the gully walls are undermined and taken away you see the houses at risk but then comes the question, where do we live?

Madam Speaker, the government has to develop a clear policy on urbanization and planned communities and that is now the task of the new ministry of urban renewal. We have to develop that. When we made the commitment to develop seventy thousand new houses Madam Speaker, it wasn’t a political promise, we need to be able to build that and make them affordable so that we can attract people from going to take up marginal lands, hillside lands, unsafe lands to build on to come and reside informally developed and constructed communities. It is going to take some time but I wish to assure the nation that we are serious about making Jamaica a safe and resilient country and part of the resilience is that we must build where we know there will be a disaster looming.

So, Madam Speaker, I just thought I would share these thoughts with you and the rest of the parliament. The resources that I’ve spoken about, the members of parliament will be written to, we will try to mobilize them very quickly so that you are able to provide assistance to your constituents who are definitely in need. Thank you, madam speaker.