BHA Encourages Businesses To Prepare For Hurricane Irene

Major Bahamas-based companies yesterday activated their disaster preparedness/Business Continuity Plans, the last storm of similar magnitude and track to Hurricane Irene having cost this nation's economy an estimated $351.5 million in loss and damage.

A little-noticed Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) report from 2009, dealing with an emergency loan facility granted to the Bahamas to help it deal with the impact from Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004, noted that the Bahamas suffered economic damage/loss equivalent to 7 per cent of its per annum gross domestic product (GDP).

Given that Hurricane Frances, a Category 4 storm with maximum wind speeds of 145 miles per hour, is of similar strength to Irene, and followed a similar path up the archipelago of islands, the data produced by the IDB report gives a pretty good idea of the damage impact should worst fears be realised.

"A team from the United Nations' Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean estimated the total damage and loss at $351.5 million, representing approximately 7 per cent of GDP," the IDB report said. "The greatest damage/loss was sustained by the tourism, infrastructure, housing and education sectors."

The IDB report noted that the housing sector suffered damages worth $31.2 million, with 6,682 houses throughout the Bahamas damaged and 671 destroyed. School buildings and furniture, and the health sector, sustained damage estimated at $20 million and $2.9 million respectively.

Tourism facilities suffered an estimated $21 million worth of damage from the 2004 hurricanes, with the transportation industry sustaining damage worth $44.5 million. Apart from docks and coastal roads, some 62 per cent of Bahamian airports were impacted.

And, according to the IDB report, some $10.7 million worth of livestock, crops and equipment was lost by the Bahamian agriculture and fisheries industries. The clean-up operation, and storm waste disposal, cost a further $21.6 million.

There is no guarantee that Irene will inflict the same level of damage, but that IDB report gives a pretty good indicator of such a storm's likely economic impact.

Some of that 2004 damage will, of course, also have come from Jeanne, but Frances also largely spared New Providence, scoring only a glancing blow against the Bahamas' main island. If Irene comes closer to New Providence, or scores a direct hit, the damage and economic loss levels are likely to be much greater.

Much depends on whether Irene hits the likes of Nassau, Freeport and New Providence directly, plus other factors such as angle, storm surge levels and the speed at which the storm moves through. Bahamian companies, though, were yesterday leaving nothing to chance, with the hotel and tourism industry starting to experience their first booking cancellations.

Frank Comito, the Bahamas Hotel Association's (BHA) executive vice-president, told Tribune Business: "We've advised businesses to review and activate their hurricane readiness plans, and the Ministry of Tourism is actively working on the ESF 12, which is the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) group that deals with tourism.

"The Ministry is putting matters together, and activating stakeholder communication. We're starting to see some cancellations for the Wednesday, Thursday, Friday period. Nothing en masse. The cancellations at this point do not extend over the weekend, so we can only hope for the best.

"We're in a period where we have people staying for longer," Mr Comito added. "Many of the Family Island hotels have closed down from mid-August, so we're hoping the impact there will be minimal. Grand Bahama hotels are also getting into readiness mode."

Robert Sands, Baha Mar's senior vice-president of external and governmental affairs, told Tribune Business that the resort developer/owner's Hurricane Response Team was meeting late yesterday to draw up detailed plans for Irene and go over their strategy.

"We have a very detailed hurricane response preparedness programme, not only for our operations but also the construction," Mr Sands said. "We have initiated that plan in terms of securing sites, battening down equipment. We continue to monitor Irene very closely."

Mr Sands said Baha Mar's Hurricane Response Team featured representatives from both its hotel properties, the Sheraton and the Wyndham, and the likes of the laundry department and golf course, plus the construction site.

"Notwithstanding the track, it appears New Providence island will be impacted in some way, so we are taking all necessary precautions to secure property and mare sure associates and guests are safe," Mr Sands said. "We've gotten one or two small cancellations today from groups coming from the Family Islands to New Providence, and one or two small groups due to come from Florida on Thursday. Nothing significant."

Both Cable Bahamas and the Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC), which have infrastructure and personnel throughout the Bahamas, both confirmed they had activated their disaster response plans.

Marlon Johnson, BTC's vice-president for sales and marketing, said: "We're getting ready to have a meeting this afternoon [Monday] with the Business Recovery Task Force to go over the Business Continuity Plan, and make sure we get a sense of which islands will be impacted, in what sequence, and take all required steps to secure the life and welfare of staff."

BTC would then focus on securing its property and infrastructure, "and do as much as we can to keep the system up and running during the storm".

Acknowledging that BTC was "very concerned" about Hurricane Irene and its potential impact, Mr Johnson added: "Our key aim is to keep communications up and running, but we have to do so with safety first.....

"We have staff throughout the length and breadth of the islands, and in all communities we operate in, so hopefully the storm will move over open sea and we can avoid the worst."

Winston Rolle, the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation's (BCCEC) chairman, said yesterday of Irene: "Anything of this nature coming our way is going to disrupt the flow of business for at least a couple of days, and depending on the nature of it, it will result in some clean up and repairs that not only impact businesses from an operational perspective, but financially as well.

"It's not something we want to be contending with at this time. No time is a good time for a hurricane, but this is the season that we are in. It will have an impact on Back-to-School shopping, which tends to be a peak time for retailers, and let's hope it does not delay the opening of schools."

Mr Rolle expressed concern that Hurricane Irene, if it travels on its current projected path, would delay or damage ongoing construction repairs to Bahamian schools, delaying the start of the new school year.

"It looks like it's going to be impacting a number of islands," the Chamber chairman said.

Source: The Tribune