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Opinions of Friday, 26 June 2015

Columnist: Ohemeng, Yaw

The changes we must see after the June 3 Disaster

It seemed like a normal Thursday morning on the 4th of June. I tuned in to Peace FM online as I usually do in the mornings to catch some bit of news from my native land. Then I heard the news – there was some sort of a disaster in Ghana that has claimed a large number of lives. It did not sound credible – maybe I misheard the number 96. Before I went to bed the night before I had read that the GCB Tower at Circle was on fire but paid scant attention to it. I had even casually mentioned it when I woke up. Before I could confirm what I thought I had heard, I lost the link to Peace FM. I decided to switch to City FM and there was the host asking for the Authorities to say something to the public as everyone was confused and that the emergency numbers that were given out around midnight were not connecting. In my bid for confirmation of the numbers, I turned to another online radio transmission from Hit FM. There, a Police Officer (a DSP Obeng) was giving listeners the benefit of his knowledge of geography, planning, settlements and floods. I was impressed by what he was saying and he summed it up so beautifully – the nation should allow engineering to speak. I went back again to City FM. They confirmed the 96 dead I thought I heard just as when a reporter on the scene broke the news that more bodies had been discovered in a nearby storey building and that they were being ‘thrown’ into the back of a truck. He predicted the number of dead to exceed 200.
I am narrating this sequence of events to show how much unprepared we are for disasters, despite Ghana having a disaster management organisation and other emergency services. The vivid confirmation of this was the photograph showing the Interior Minister and the Accra Mayor arriving, ill-attired for the occasion, with security personnel holding umbrellas to protect them from the rain. It immediately dawned upon you that our officeholders have no clue on how to communicate leadership. But of course we cannot call them leaders for leadership only comes to the fore when called upon to deal with matters that are not routine.
That Accra is prone to flooding when the rains arrive in June was known to everybody, including the City Authorities. In fact two days prior, floods have claimed two lives in Accra. So if we knew of the hazard, knew of what to generally expect, why were we caught literally hands down? To me this is what should have been the terms of reference for the Committee set up by the President, as a number of things went wrong on those two days.
First there were no coordinated search and rescue procedures in place. Several of those who survived the disaster have spoken of not being able to reach any of the emergency numbers put out. There was no dedicated emergency centre and no command and control infrastructure was in place to handle the disaster as it unfolded. There was not and there still has not been a single spokesperson to brief the public on what was happening then and even in the aftermath. The ‘epicentre’ of the disaster, the GOIL filling station, was not under anyone’s control. The public and the press had easy access, giving running commentaries and trying to outdo each other in the supply of undignified images of the dead. Even when the police barriered off the filling station, it was with a flimsy wall of aluminium sheeting open at both ends that could not deter access.
Due to the lack of procedures and coordination, the magnitude of the disaster was lost on the political leaders. This meant that the interior minister would arrive in a political suit, the Accra Mayor in a polo shirt, followed by the President, Nana Addo and a delegation from Parliament. None of them was in the right gear for visiting a disaster scene. If we had a National Emergency Centre that would have been the place to which they would all have gone for updates instead of showing up to impede rescue efforts (not that we had anything systematic going on then).
There were no procedures for recovering the dead bodies. In the absence of body bags and ambulances, we were all made to watch the sickening scene of bodies being piled on top of each other in the trailer of a truck with blood dripping onto the tyres and the road. The trailer was barely covered with plastic sheeting as the truck moved through the streets of Accra enroute to the morgue. It was not clear which agency was doing the recovery. The recovery men were not in any appropriate personnel protection gear – they only had on gloves and nose masks and nothing more. Some even wore shorts and sandals.
From what unfolded on the day, we appeared not to have planned for anything. The hospitals were asking for donations of medical supplies even at the time that government announced a 50 million Cedi fund for the victims. It turned out, according to a minister, that more than half of it was earmarked for repairing roads. In all this, where was our NADMO – the political creation? There was no single mention of the disaster on its webpage even two weeks after the event. In the last few days, some photographs of officials receiving donated relief items have appeared. With this state of affairs, it is easy to guess that they would not have had any information on the definite number of dead, injured or any other information that could have been of use to families that were looking for missing loved ones. There was no information on how the injured could receive the promised ‘free’ medical care, and certainly, there was no information on how survivors could access the relief items that were being donated by numerous individuals and organisations.
Whilst waiting for answers and direction, the blame cycle started alright. There was enough blame to go round – those who throw rubbish into drains, those who build on waterways; those who build without permits; the City Council that does not collect rubbish or fail to enforce laws; engineers who build open drains; and successive governments that have paid lip service to solving the Accra flood problem. The state, however, did not hesitate to declare three days of national mourning that was ended with a church service during which the President ordered for DNA tests to be carried out to identify unrecognisable victims. Then the knee-jerk reaction followed– the demolition of structures on waterways. A washing bay was demolished in Achimota (Mile 7). There was an attempt to demolish a nearby filling station, apparently being constructed by the Sports Minister, without permit. This was halted by some ‘macho’ men and it would be of no surprise to learn that the demolishing team would never visit again. Then there is the huge demolition exercise ongoing at Sodom and Gomorrah that is meant to remove, once and for all, the largest slum in the capital.
In the last week or so a five-member committee has been set up by the President – with a very narrow remit of investigating the causes of the fire at the GOIL filling station. No one is bothered about finding out why the flood caught so many people unawares, why rescue efforts were not coordinated; and why those occupying positions of responsibility failed the residents of Accra so woefully. It seems we just have to investigate the causes of the fire and all would be well.
But seriously, all shall not be well until we learn the needed lessons from this tragedy. We need, as a matter of urgency, a National Emergency Centre. When resources allow, we need them up and down the country in at least every regional capital. Such centres should be designed and constructed to be resilient against the known hazards in the country. It should be equipped with communication facilities that will allow officials to guide and give timely updates to the public. It should have backup power supply so that even if we were to lose the national grid in a disaster, they can function. There is also an urgent need for clarifying the chain of command in an emergency and which agency is to be the lead in given disaster situations.
The biggest lesson, though, is to learn how to mitigate the effects of disasters by building our capacity to give early warning and to evacuate potential victims. We must also stop this nonsense of staffing NADMO with unsuitable, unqualified and inexperienced political activists. Disaster management should not be one arena where cluelessness is a virtue.

Dr Yaw Ohemeng