Wednesday, April 17, 2024

IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST: White Hill Road no lost cause


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Using Bajan parlance, the average person ought to understand what I mean when I say I can “work” with Minister of Transport and Works Michael Lashley.

I have often not agreed with him, but I admire the fact that he has demonstrated he is not afraid to face the public on matters relating to his portfolio. You can’t say the same for some other Government officials.

With that as my platform, I wish publicly to ask the minister to reconsider his announced plan to “abandon” the road at White Hill, St Andrew, the scene of a major landslide. I know the minister said he had never seen anything like it, and an on-the-spot consultation with officials of his ministry resulted in the decision to “abandon” the road.

Mr Minister, I am no civil engineer, geologist, agricultural scientist, hydrologist or any other professional who would have received academic training in this area, but I have been in journalism since 1979, “shadowed” MTW for the Nation for more years that any other journalist, and had been designated rural reporter for what seemed like “donkey years”.

With all respect to my colleagues, I believe I am more intimately familiar with the Scotland District and its peculiarities than any other journalist alive today, perhaps with the exception of retired ace photographer Charles Grant.

I am therefore quite comfortable when I say, Mr Minister, that in my opinion what you saw at White Hill last week was nothing compared to what ministers who preceded you would have seen at Spring Vale, St Andrew, and Dark Hole and Parks Road, St Joseph, among other locations over the years.

In fact, the scale of the problem that would have confronted then minister Vic Johnson and Mr MTW himself for decades, Cedric Archer, the morning after Spring Vale Road slipped into the gully makes White Hill look like a picnic. But I understand that Spring Vale was, and continues to be, a major access point to St Andrew.

Without doubt, rehabilitating White Hill road will be an extensive – and expensive – exercise, but as a former Minister of Housing and Lands [and in my view one of the most effective in my time in journalism] you have to be aware that after a single house fire Government agencies are stretched to the limit trying to house a family or two.

When you publicly promise therefore to abandon the road and relocate all the households, you would have had to know that finding alternative accommodation for 105 households will be a mammoth undertaking. At the rate at which Government usually works, that is an exercise that will take at least a decade – at least that’s my opinion. At the rate at which this Government works, however, that could take forever.

So even if relocation has to be the medium- to long-term solution in order to give residents peace of mind, in the interim they deserve a safe and convenient access to their homes. Abandoning the road does not offer either.

I am also concerned, and I know I am not alone in this view, that when problems like this landslide occur, the “experts” find it somewhere between difficult and impossible to “consult” with long-standing residents who might be able to bring home-grown knowledge to the situation that might not have been captured in a textbook or classroom.

When I visited White Hill on Independence Day, something struck me – and based on conversations with half a dozen veterans of the district, it also caught their attention as well.

Usually when a landslide occurs in this area, a section of land moves and it is clearly observed by surface shifts. For example, trees that were in one location before the slide move downhill, and are often still standing. In this case the road has sunk in one area the depth of about 15 feet, yet the hillside beside it remained intact with all its vegetation still in place.

As far as Gerald Smith, Curtis Carrington, Anthony Jordan, Wayne Lowe and Clyde Forde – all of whom are intimately familiar with the district – are concerned, it is more a case of the road “sinking” than the traditional landslide. And they remain adamant that while recent heavy rains would have exacerbated the situation, the real fault rests with the Barbados Water Authority which, according to them, has consistently failed to respond to calls for burst mains. At times calls go unanswered for months, they said, and that was exactly what happened in the area where this most recent slide occurred.

Additionally, disagreeing strongly with the position of officials that the road should be abandoned, they pointed to a hillside less than 20 metres from the area of the slide where a major portion of the land slid into the road more than 30 years ago, making it impassible.

   “They sent a tractor from the MTW depot in St Andrew and clear the road . . . and after all these years the hillside is still there – stable,” Carrington pointed out.

   The veteran employee of the Soil Conservation Unit, which has an excellent record of land stabilisation across the Scotland District, suggested that authorities cut an alternative path on the hillside overlooking the landslide, where there is already a flat surface.

This, he added, would provide an interim stable access to nearby Hillaby, which most residents prefer to the alternative of travelling several miles downhill to St Saviour’s and then back uphill over Spring Vale and Sturges in St Thomas.

The “abandon White Hill” choice also bothers me for another reason. Fruitful Hill Road (from Lower Parks, St Joseph, through Boarded Hall to Cane Garden, St Andrew), Frizer’s Road (from Mellows, St Joseph to Bathsheba), Spa Hill Road (from Melvin’s Hill, St Joseph to Boarded Hall, St Andrew), the old Bawdens Road (from Indian Ground, St Peter, to Bawdens, St Andrew) were all abandoned within the last five decades on the grounds that they were all unstable. With little to no rehabilitation work taking place since then, these areas have not suffered any other significant land slippage.

We don’t need to abandon another rural road.

Here’s my final point: I have seen the Soil Conservation Unit execute project after project for three and a half decades. Those who work there know the Scotland District and what it takes to keep roads open, mitigate against landslides and generally stabilise the land. They do work off the beaten path that would probably leave Minister Lashley overwhelmed with the quality of their achievement.

I say to Government, provide Soil Conservation with the financial resources and turn White Hill over to them. I am sure that by this time next year, fully loaded buses will be able to travel all the way up and down to St Saviour’s through Mount All.

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