The Montagu Ramp plus some thoughts on tidal waves

First Published: 2005-01-14

The House panel appointed last summer to investigate traffic, health and other problems at the Montagu ramp will meet soon according to Pierre Dupuch, the Independent MP who chairs it.

But don't expect any quick solutions to this long-festering mess. If the committee is able to report to parliament this summer, it will then be up to the government and others to consider implementing the proposals. And we all know how that goes.

Since last October, the committee (which includes Brent Symonette, Philip Davis, Frank Smith and John Carey) has been collecting public comments via the BahamasB2B web site. About a hundred postings have been received so far.

According to Mr Dupuch, they boil down to the following options:

1. Close the site completely.

2. Move the vendors east of the sailing club.

3. Move the ramp to the area between the fort and the yacht club.

4. Move the vendors to the Malcolm's Park area.

"The most sensible and productive suggestions have come from the fishermen themselves," Mr Dupuch told Tough Call recently. "The committee is anxious to see this situation resolved, but we are still looking for public comment."

It certainly is incredible, as one editorialist recently wrote, that lawmakers are still investigating a problem that began at least 13 years ago – and that has been worsening ever since, through three government changes.

The Montagu shoreline is one of the few open spaces left on this island. But despite its use by inner city families, cookout vendors, sailing enthusiasts, pleasure boaters and commuters it has been allowed to deteriorate into a monstrous public health and safety hazard.

There can be no rational explanation for this – although some would argue that the opportunity to affront those who lunch at the Royal Nassau Sailing Club is the main motivator.

If we discount that absurdity, we are left with the fact that a handful of citizens are holding half the population of the island to ransom. And this big, bad PLP government (and the Hubiggety government before it…and the Pingdom before that) has neither the guts nor imagination to deal with a minor problem before it becomes a major disaster.

Just as the unregulated water sports industry is allowed to kill and maim our tourists, so is this handful of "entrepeneurs" being allowed to create a public health and traffic hazard that will eventually cost the government far more than addressing the situation now ever could.

Onsite sewerage disposal along the coast (via cess pits dug in the porous limestone rock) contributes waste and pathogens to Montagu Bay. The market itself contributes human and animal waste plus a variety of garbage. The marine products on sale at Montagu are washed in this toxic cocktail.

The crumbling ramp is crowded with fishermen, jet ski operators and vendors of all sorts. Despite the stench and the garbage, the ramshackle market is visited by confused tourists and people who stop without warning to chat or buy. Trailers block the road during rush hours, leading to miles of traffic jams and endless frustration.

A few dozen fish vendors are licensed at the Montagu market. But they are augmented by boaters and jet ski operators. Then there are the fruit and vegetable stands, several mobile vendors and even a petty shop. Recently, people began selling t-shirts and other clothing from cars parked beside the ramp.

It all began in the 1970's with one or two casual fishermen hawking their catch to passing motorists. But in the last decade the Montagu has exploded into a chaotic free-for-all. One of our few recreational areas has been transformed into a public slaughterhouse and commercial centre without the slightest thought.

Fishermen moved to the ramp in numbers after the closure of Potters Cay in 1991 following an outbreak of conch poisoning.

At that time, more than 1,000 people were hospitalized from eating conch infected with bacteria picked up from polluted water around the Paradise Island bridge.

That outbreak was caused by the dumping of raw sewage into the harbour after an equipment breakdown at the Malcolm's Park deep injection well, which disposes of much of the city's waste.

Potters Cay was closed for months, and although it was understood that the fishermen would leave Montagu when the central market reopened after remedial measures were taken, they never did.

Now one of the options the committee is considering is to move vendors to the area east of the historic Pan American seaplane ramp at Malcolm's Park. A new ramp would be built between the yacht club and Fort Montagu. And direct access to the existing Montagu ramp from Bay Street would be closed off.

This new market area would become a tourist attraction similar to the Arawak Cay fish fry. Selling only Bahamian products, it would be operated by a private authority.

Similar proposals have been on the table for decades. However, we are certain that the Christie administration will put previous governments to shame by the alacrity with which it responds to the Montagu committee's upcoming report.

The October 1991 Halloween Surge

After last week's article on tsunamis, some readers recalled the massive swells we experienced here on October 31, 1991 – an event that became known as the Halloween storm surge.

These ocean swells were high enough to swamp homes along West Bay Street and cause extensive damage to sea walls and coastal roads. The Glass Window bridge on Eleuthera was also heavily damaged.

This was the result of the so-called 'perfect storm' – a blockbuster nor'easter which developed off the New England coast after combining with remnants of Hurricane Grace. This was the storm that inspired the Warner Brothers movie of the same name.

By October 30 – when it was midway between Bermuda and New Jersey – the storm had sustained winds of 70 mph, producing 40- to 80-foot waves, as reported by a weather buoy east of Long Island, New York.

A US government report said that "treacherous swells, surf and associated coastal flooding occurred…along portions of the Atlantic shoreline extending from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic to the Bahamas. Total damage in the United States was in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

A tsunami is a single catastrophic event that is over in few minutes. It generates a few large waves immediately and then a series of smaller ones, like a stone thrown in the water. The Halloween storm surge was a series of large waves sustained for at least 24 hours and continuing through the next day.

The October 1926 Tidal Wave

While we are on the subject, in 1981 the late Dr Paul Albury published a newspaper article headed "the Tidal Wave of 1926".

Dr Albury recalled an October hurricane that produced huge waves that devastated Marsh Harbour on Abaco. Following a rising tide as the first half of the hurricane passed over, there was a powerful surge once the eye had passed. He quoted this eye-witness account:

"The sea drove in – at first with a solid wall of water about six feet high…And then in a few minutes more the real tidal wave rolled in. We could hear its fearful roar before we could see it. It was a solid wall of water rising about 20 feet high."

Actually, the term "tidal wave" is a misnomer. What the residents of Marsh Harbour experienced in 1926 was a storm surge – water that is pushed toward shore by the force of the hurricane and made higher by wind waves.

Tsunami Evidence

Last week's article also reported that scientists had identified ancient depositional evidence for past tsunamis affecting the Bahamas.

In relation to this, a reader provided us with a 1996 research paper by former College of the Bahamas lecturer Paul Hearty. The article suggested that huge boulders along the coastal ridge of north Eleuthera had been put there by large waves some 120,000 years ago.

However, in 2002 geologists from the Gerace Research Centre on San Salvador disputed the evidence. They reported that these boulder-like outcrops (some as big as a small house) were simply "erosional remnants".

Of course, this does not infer that tsunamis have never affected the Bahamas over the millennia. They almost certainly have.

The column 'Tough Call' by Larry Smith is published in The Tribune every Thursday and is reprinted here as a courtesy. Mr. Smith founded and successfully grew an advertising agency over 20 years. Under his direction Media Enterprises diversified into short-run commercial printing and publishing, and is now the largest non-fiction book wholesaler in the Bahamas. He has 30 years experience as a journalist and publicist and has contributed numerous articles and columns to the Bahamian press. A former reporter at the Nassau Guardian, local correspondent for Reuters and editor at the Bahamas News Bureau, he conceived and edited the Bahama Almanac (published 2000 by Media Enterprises), wrote the commentary for Mike Toogood's Portrait of an Archipelago (published 2004 by Macmillan Caribbean), and edited the Bahamas Environmental Handbook (published 2002 by the government). In 2003 he took a year's leave of absence from Media Enterprises to lead a transition management team at the Nassau Guardian after the paper was acquired by local investors. After leaving the Guardian he was contracted by the Tribune as online manager/editor and columnist. He has a degree in political science and journalism from the University of Miami. Mr. Smith can be contacted at: larry@tribunemedia.net

Help support The Nassau Institute