I join other members of this Honourable House in giving thanks to Almighty God for sparing Antigua from what could have been the devastating effects of Hurricanes Irma and Jose.
God was on our side.
But, the good Lord helps those who help themselves.
In this regard, the preparations made in advance of the passage of Hurricane Irma, including the readiness of individual property occupiers, contributed significantly to lessening damage on Antigua.
The government of our beloved homeland deserves the greatest appreciation for the arrangements that were put in place for the safety and well-being of all our citizens and residents, and for the tourists who were with us at the time.
As you are all aware, even in advance of the storms, Prime Minister Gaston Browne had made arrangements with several banks to finance the work of the National Office of Disaster Services (NODS) and to mobilize teams from APUA, the Defense Force, the Police, the Fire Services and the Solid Waste – both before and after the passage of Irma.
Let us not, for a minute, underestimate the value and importance of the level of preparedness to which the Prime Minister committed resources.
We had not a single fatality on Antigua and only minor injuries. The aftermath of Irma could have been worse without the state of readiness into which the country was placed.
We should, collectively, place on record our thanks to the agencies and workers who helped to accomplish that state of readiness. They merit our applause and thanks.
Mr. Speaker of course, everything could have been better but by God’s grace we in Antigua were relatively unscathed compared to what occurred on the sister isle of Barbuda. I will later give a more detailed report of the state of our Hotel properties in Antigua following an assessment by our ABTA and MOT technical teams.
Those who seek fault and failure will find it wherever it is convenient for their purposes. And, we have had much of that, particularly from opportunistic members of the Opposition political parties who are desperately seeking relevance for themselves.
They remind me of an ambitious and unscrupulous character in the Television Programme, “Game of Thrones”, of whom Lord Varys said: “He would see this country burn if he could be King of the ashes”. And, indeed the response of some members of the Opposition to the Herculean efforts of the government confirms that they would indeed see this country burn, so they could be kings of the ashes. But, Mr. Speaker the fact that Antigua has remained open for business to the world community and especially for tourists is of critical importance. For, if Antigua had suffered major damage, not only would it have been years until our economy recovered, but we would not have been able to render to the residents of Barbuda the rapid assistance that we gave, including their evacuation to Antigua.
In the coming days and weeks, we have to make it clear to the world that Antigua has returned to normalcy and that Tourists continue to be welcome to this little bit of paradise that God continues to preserve and protect.
Mr. Speaker, I now turn to Barbuda.
When Irma threatened both Antigua and Barbuda, like many others, I had feared the worst, but hoped for the best. When Irma approached the unitary state of Antigua and Barbuda, it was the largest, most ferocious hurricane in history. It was more than a Category 5 Hurricane; it was a Category 5 plus with winds gusting at 220 miles per hour.
I felt, as most of you must have done, that given the small size of Barbuda and the flatness of its terrain, a storm of the magnitude and fierceness of Irma would inflict considerable damage. Unfortunately, that is precisely what happened. I went to Barbuda last Friday with the military aircraft kindly provided by the Government of Venezuela to help evacuate the residents.
Mr. Speaker I was visibly moved to tears by what I say. The despair and raw emotion on the faces of the Barbudan people was unimaginable and something that I will never forget. As a country we will be eternally grateful to the Government and people of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela for their assistance with two military aircraft, which were critical in evacuating our Barbuda brothers and sisters ahead of another impending Hurricane.
That evacuation was necessary, Mr. Speaker, not only because of the approach of Hurricane Jose within a few days of the passage of Irma, but also because Barbuda is unfit for human habitation.
We are also grateful to all the emergency disaster responders who assisted in this evacuation effort. Within 48 hours of the hurricane a flotilla of sea craft, helicopters and a military Aircraft were used for the “Barbuda Exodus” to ensure our Barbudan residents and citizens were safe and secure in Antigua.
Prime Minister Gaston Browne has righty described it as a “mangled wreck”. Such homes and other property left standing require very little pressure to reduce them to the rubble that lies all around them. I could not conceive of how children could attend school, or how people could resume a normal life without proper shelter and no utilities of any kind.
It would be hell on earth. There is no conceivable way in which we could have left anyone on Barbuda for one more moment in those dire circumstances. We all know that there was one fatality in Barbuda – a little boy plucked from the hands of his guardian by the intensity of Irma’s force.
His death was one too many.
His life mattered.
And, we continue to mourn him.
We will never know what further fatalities may have resulted in Barbuda from Hurricane Jose.
But, we can all take comfort in the rightness of the Government’s decision to evacuate all residents to Antigua.
Those of us on Antigua who know that there but for fortune could have been any of us, have risen to help our brothers and sisters who were on Barbuda.
We have given them a shoulder to lean on and a hand to help them up. The people on Antigua have long cared for and expended treasure on Barbuda. The people on Antigua have done so again.
A grateful government of the Unitary State of Antigua and Barbuda sincerely thanks the people on Antigua who have opened their homes and whose resources will be used to maintain the residents from Barbuda.
The temporary shelters that government has provided as well as the costs of food, bed-cots, medicines, toiletries and other essentials are being provided because the government had the foresight and the care to purchase those materials in advance of the storms, and to charter two planes to fly them into Antigua.
Again, let us not take this forward planning by the government for granted.
In other islands, which were hit by Irma, mass suffering continues and relief supplies are yet to be sent to them by their metropolitan governments or by their local administrations.
I mention this in great sorrow for the peoples of those neighbouring islands and in sympathy for their circumstances.
But, I make the point that, without our level of preparedness, all of our residents, particularly those on Barbuda would have been in similar terrible conditions.
Further assistance will be delivered in the coming days from CARICOM governments organized by the Caribbean Disaster and Emergency Agencies; and by friendly governments such as Bolivia and Chile which pledged help at an early stage.
The government of Venezuela was a first responder and their military aircraft has been crucial in the evacuation of the residents on Barbuda.
Virgin Atlantic and its owner Sir Richard Branson has also been helpful as are the cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Line.
The cruise lines are sending four ships across the Caribbean with relief supplies. Our government is most grateful to all these donors for the swiftness of their response.
Mr Speaker, the State of Emergency that the Government has declared for Barbuda was absolutely necessary as was its designation as an area of disaster.
The safety of the Barbuda residents and the security of the Island required it.
Further, if our government is to mobilize and secure the kind of financial resources from the international community that is needed to restore viable life on Barbuda and to build tourism resorts to sustain its livelihood, it has to be made clear that a disaster of major proportions exists there.
Only very rough estimates of the cost of the damage in Barbuda has been done, but it will take hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild it and prepare it for the future.
Mr Speaker, essential to the task of attracting necessary financial resources from the international community is a sustainable development plan.
No international financial institution or donor government will provide resources without a plan that clearly indicates that Barbuda will be rebuilt to meet Category 5 Hurricane conditions.
Simply erecting structures similar to that which existed will not encourage any government or agency to finance rebuilding.
They would regard that as throwing their tax payers’ money into a never-ending hole.
They won’t do it. Barbuda would be devastated by another storm or disaster at any time.
The Government of Antigua and Barbuda would certainly not have the money to rebuild after every disaster, and the international community would not support it.
Yet, we could face this problem next year, and the year after, and the year after that.
It is also not in the interest of the residents of Barbuda for the present system to continue, because it is they who would be immediately and permanently affected as they are now.
It is they who would be dislodged from their homes and their property.
It is they whose schooling would be disrupted. And, it is they who would be made unemployed and impoverished.
That is why, Mr Speaker, the present system has to recognize and respect the Constitution of our unitary state and uphold it accordingly.
The use of land, building codes and regulations – and the implementation of internationally acceptable standards – have to be legislated, applied and enforced on Barbuda just as they are on Antigua and in every part of the world.
In this regard, it must be acknowledged that, in their desire to play politics and pander to the support of a handful of vocal separatists on Barbuda, the Opposition United Progressive Party deeply wounded the interest of the residents of Barbuda by ignoring the Constitution and illegally passing the Barbuda Land Act of 2007.
That legislation has no constitutional force. Indeed, it violates the Constitution of the Unitary State of Antigua and Barbuda.
Further, it is completely deceitful and dishonest because it gave false and unenforceable powers to the Barbuda Council over land in return for political support. The UPP’s deceit and dishonesty resides in section 31 of the Act under the title “Entrenchment”.
There, the UPP regime said that: “it is the government’s intention to amend articles 123 (3) and 47 of the Constitution”, basically to bestow the powers to the Barbuda Council that the legislation envisaged.
But, they never carried through those amendments. They never attempted to amend the Constitution. Therefore, for this, and other reasons, the Barbuda Act of 2007 is not constitutionally enforceable.
In any event, Mr. Speaker, the deceit of the UPP apart, the point is that in order for Barbuda to be rebuilt in such a way that it is not faced year after year with disasters of the present kind, the land system and the codes and regulations relating to land use and building; to waterways; and even to energy systems have to be revised and supervised to international standards.
Without it, no donor agency or government will put a penny toward Barbuda’s rebuilding, recognizing that it would not be sustainable and the problem could recur frequently.
In the coming weeks, the Government will have to confront this issue in ways that would attract international financing and provide residents on Barbuda with a safe, predictable and structurally-sound environment.
The immediate costs of maintaining our brothers and sisters who have been evacuated from Barbuda will have to be borne by the people of Antigua and our unitary government which already faces severe challenges. But, we will not shirk from the task. However, the cooperation of all will be required.
Those who seek ruin so that they can be the Kings of dust must not be allowed to succeed.
The Representatives, elected to this Honourable House, have the special and particular obligation to do all in our power to rebuild Barbuda on a sustainable basis; to give its residents the same level of security and predictability as exists on Antigua; to ensure that all our citizens and residents make an equal contribution to the benefits enjoyed by all; and to make our nation whole again. My Speaker, I am pleased to support the motion before us in the interest of our unitary State of Antigua and Barbuda, and Barbuda in particular.
Finally Mr. Speaker I leave my fellow countrymen, but particularly our brothers and sisters from Barbuda with some word of comfort and more importantly a promise of restoration found in Isaiah 61:4 “And they shall build the old wastes, they shall raise up the former desolations and they shall repair the waste cities, the desolation of many generations” With the help of Almighty God Barbuda will be restored; Barbuda will be rebuilt; Barbuda will rise again!