The government can be commended for its handling of the closure of the Demerara Harbour Bridge yesterday. The bridge, which was damaged when a tug and barge reportedly drifted into it, is likely to be back in operation by late this afternoon or tonight.
This is quite an impressive turnaround. At the end of the emergency works, the government should undertake a review of its handling of this disaster to see how it can improve things, should something like that happen again.
Yesterday’s closure was not the first time that a major disruption to the bridge occurred. Many moons ago, a large section of the bridge floated away just as a school bus was about the cross onto that particular section. It was a close shave.
There were other accidents which occurred and which caused great suffering and hardships to commuters who use the bridge. The authorities, therefore, should have been better prepared to deal with yesterday’s emergency.
From the moment the bridge was closed to traffic, the Civil Defence Commission should have sprung into action. Ostensibly, this is not quite how things played out.
The closure of the bridge caused great inconvenience. Some overseas-based Guyanese missed their flights because they could not get across. There was concern about what would happen to patients who needed to be transported from the West Demerara Hospital to the Georgetown Hospital. The Coast Guard was called into action to deal with this problem.
Wardens were placed at the stellings to control the boarding of the speedboats which were shuttling passengers across the river. But there was still chaos, because too many Guyanese are undisciplined and do not like to wait their turn or to line up in an orderly manner.
The closure of the bridge was a good opportunity for the authorities to test their emergency response plans. And the verdict would be mixed in terms of an emergency response.
From the moment the bridge was forced to close, emergency plans should have been activated by the Civil Defence Commission. It makes no sense trying to have thousands of persons crossing the river at the Vreed-en-Hoop and Stabroek stellings, both of which are in poor condition and are unsafe.
Other crossing points, utilising private and public facilities, should have been activated. There are a number of companies which would have been willing to allow the use of their facilities to move the large numbers of persons across the bridge. This would have avoided the congestion on both sides of the river.
Secondly, persons going to the airport should have been advised to use crossings further up the bank, where the authorities could have put some vessels into commission.
Thirdly, a number of vehicles were stuck on either side of the river, unable to get across. Immediately, the Joe Vieira Park should have been put into action as a temporary parking lot, with security, for vehicles which were from the other side of the river and which were unable get across.
In short, the authorities did an impressive job in not allowing the situation to get out of control. Things could have been disastrous if the accident had occurred during the daytime. This would have seen far more persons stuck on each side of the river.
But in terms of an emergency response, there was much to be desired. The authorities have to get this right in the future, because you can never tell when another accident will happen.
A new bridge is not the short-term answer. A new bridge is not going to be built in the foreseeable future. It will take about six years to be completed, considering the problems which the government has with project implementation.
The authorities have to cater for possible future emergencies at both the Demerara Harbour Bridge and the Berbice River Bridge, which has now been taken over by the government. They must also put in place contingency plans for other types of emergencies.
What is going to happen should the seawall give way? What are the plans in place should the airport at Timehri have to be closed? What is going to happen should the East Coast Public Road sink? These are all scenarios which it is hoped never happen, but if they do, then there must be some pre-planned response. There seems to have been no pre-planned response to the closure of the Demerara Harbour Bridge yesterday.
There is a lot of work to be done. And judging from the present performance, help is needed to effectively launch an emergency response such as the one which was required on both sides of the Demerara River in the aftermath of the accident. The government should seek help. The emergency response to yesterday left much to be desired.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper)
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