After the Blaze
By Samuel Serry Jr & Samuella Yokie
As the evening sun disappeared into the point where the sky appears to bow and meet the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, a misty haze and the smell of ash permeated the air. The banging of tools on miniature foundations and the clattering of severely burnt roofing sheets was the dominant sound caused by the salvaging of ‘usable’ household items from what remains of hundreds of makeshift shelters in one of the most impoverished communities of Freetown, Susan’s Bay.
(Further down on what was now left like a barren wasteland, a group of kids, aged between two and five years, helped their mum clear debris from the foundation of a small makeshift shelter that was previously their home.
Hungry and bemired, the family of six desperately recovered whatever they could lay hands on – from the rusty corrugated sheets, metal spoons, pots, buckets, and other usable after a raging inferno gutted their home and raised more than half a slum the size of ten football fields. Apocalyptic scenes that characterized Susan’s Bay after the huge blaze seemed to have been copied directly from Fred Olen Ray’s 2008 Hollywood Sci-fi, “Ground Zero.”
Certainly, the squalid conditions in the slum predated the fire, but the displacement of a multitude exacerbated the situation that validates a potential humanitarian catastrophe. As a child with a running nose sat ‘comfortably’ nibbling a mango half-covered by flies, a lady cooking mango porridge (she would later sell to the community) was also less concerned about a teenager disposing of liquid waste inches close to her cooking pot and utensils. Here, pigs, rodents, flies, stench and humans cohabit with glee – a safe haven for viral and parasitic diseases, like cholera, malaria, hepatitis, etc.
On Wednesday, March 24, 2021, social media was awash with images of the fire incident that consumed over 500 homes and left over 7,000 vulnerable citizens homeless at Susan’s Bay – the densely populated slum on the Freetown coastline adjacent to the Central Business District.
Response from the Freetown City Council and the Central Government was swift but not in terms of relief items like food, water, clothing and tents. State officials that visited, including the Mayor of Freetown, staff from the Office of National Security (ONS), and even the President and the First Lady had initially gone to assess the scale of the disaster to determine intervention strategies.
Emphasizing the need for better urban planning was the buzzword for most high profiled visitors to the disaster site. Mayor, Yvonne Akie-Sawyer took to social media stating that, “Disaster risk reduction cannot happen without effective urban planning and a building permit regime which is focused on reducing environmental and man-made risks. Local councils are best placed to deliver these mandates and even as we once again face disasters like this terrible fire, we trust that devolution of land use planning and building permit issuance will happen soon…”
The National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA), Freetown City Council and NGOs had jointly done a victims registration and verification exercise. To their credit, several other vital data on the Susan’s Bay fire incident was quickly made available. While the data itself gave a worrying account of the scale of the disaster, the very critical problem of slum settlements in Freetown was also highlighted in most of the interagency engagements.
When confronted with the idea of being relocated, Section Chief of Susan’s Bay, Pa Alimamy Kamara was indifferent; “that will not be bad but we are equally concerned about the possible site we would be relocated and what the government can do to ensure we are provided with the facilities like schools, hospitals, water and transportation” The Chief could not, however, contend with the fact that bay equally don’t have those facilities yet, his people find it ‘easy’ to live there.
30-year-old Mabinty Koroma is a petty trader and a mother of five. She explains how the fire incident affected her and her family. After the death of her husband, she has become the breadwinner of the family. Her only source of income was petty trading. The fire destroyed everything she has worked for over the years, including her kids’ school materials. Almost sobbing, she said things would be challenging for her as she will be starting life all over again and this time with five children to feed, clothe and educate.
42-year-old Umu Sankoh was not home when the fire broke out. She had to run from her stall at Dove Cut to come home quickly with the hope of retrieving some personal effects. She couldn’t. Also tragic was the discovery that her wares at Dove Cut, as well as some money she had left on her stall, have been carted away by thieves. “I feel so frustrated. Life is going to be very difficult for me and my only child”, she lamented.
A multi-agency needs assessment was also undertaken, which identified accommodation, water & food, and clothing as priority requirements for affected residents. More than one week after the fire, real donations like food and water have only come from corporate intuitions like Rokel Commercial Bank and some NGOs. These proved to be grossly inadequate.
We were privileged to be invited into a strategic planning meeting organized by the ONS at its Tower Hill Office. The ONS has established a National Disaster Preparedness and Response Plan (NDPRP). The plan “establishes a mechanism to maximize the integration incident- related prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery…”
It was decided that all donations to the fire victims pass through ONS while the Freetown City Council play a supporting role in terms of “coordinating and collaborating with the NDMA pillar leads for registration, shelter, water/sanitation, logistics, psychosocial, Nutrition (and non-food items), Security and Education through Deputy Mayor Osman T Koroma & Councilor Madine Kamara, Metropolitan Police and Social Service Department.”
Amid these meetings, planning and the backs and forth, it was clear that Sierra Leone’s disaster preparedness strategy was merely an elaborate piece of literature. There were no readily available resources (food, water, clothing, etc.) for disasters. We cannot tell if it is lack of funding or foresight that prevents these institutions working on disaster preparedness from acquiring the capacity to immediately provide basic supplies to disasters victims.
An estimated 5,000 of Freetown’s inhabitants live in slums. The sanitary conditions in these slums and their vulnerability to fire disasters and flooding have heightened calls for the relocation of residents in the areas.
Will the government heed to these calls?