The night the skyline over Susan's Bay blazed orange, when fire engulfed its zinc structures and rendered more than a 1,000 of 7,000 inhabitants homeless, that night also ate into the reservoirs of Freetown’s disaster resilience. Just how much — how significant an impact it has left and what that means for the capital’s constrained resources — is a question now fazing disaster managers and aid agencies.
“The extent of Susan’s Bay fire forced disaster managers to prioritise relief over future planning," says Lee Miles, a disaster management expert who has been working with Sierra Leone’s National Disaster Management Agency to strengthen crisis management and response. "This has somewhat prevented them from moving swiftly into the recovery phase of disaster management.”
This imbalance has a significant impact on Freetown’s overall resilience and future disaster-preparedness. The effort in a well-managed scenario is to ensure that the affected community moves on as quickly as possible into the other phases of the ‘disaster cycle’: to recovery, in the first instance, and then on to the mitigation (measures to reduce impact of disasters) and preparedness (planning for events that cannot be mitigated). But with Susan’s Bay claiming much of the national resources for response and relief in the past three months, Freetown’s vulnerability has increased.
“Much of the population in Freetown live in informal settlements and therefore their vulnerability to major incidents like natural hazards is very profound,” says Miles, a professor at the Disaster Management Centre at Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom. “Relief planning doesn’t always take into account forthcoming vulnerability problems and any areas of Freetown that have seen fires will automatically have less resilience to flooding, by their very nature.”
Indeed, the monsoon season—and the floods that it routinely brings to the capital — is an imminent danger for thousands in and around the city. Squeezed as it is between mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, and recording an average of 539.9 mm in August alone, Freetown has particular cause for concern in the next months— this, despite a predicted rainfall deficit.
The monsoon has not yet peaked and the city is already seen flooding in different parts, says Ibrahim Sei Kamara, Public Relations and Outreach Officer for the Sierra Leone Meteorological Agency. “Even though we have not been experiencing so much rain [this year], there are instances when we experience sudden rain and within 5–10 minutes the whole place gets flooded,” Kamara says. “Just midway into the season, July, we’ve had flooding.”
Freetown has been exceptionally stretched by the Susan’s Bay relief work. Floods on top of that would further strain its — and the nation’s — disaster management capacity. It’s a vicious cycle in which one disaster diminishes the ability to plan against another.
Along Guinea Wharf in Susan’s Bay, a sea of blue-and-white tents now shelter many of those who lost their homes in the fire. Skeletons of burnt-down shanties overlook the Atlantic, a constant reminder of the loss this community suffered on 24 March.
“Right now, we don’t feel good," says Alhassan Conteh. "We need help."
Conteh, a fisherman, lost all his equipment in the fire. His wife, who used to sell rice by the cup, also lost everything. The Contehs are yet to reclaim their livelihoods, and rely on government and humanitarian support. Other inhabitants have made a little more progress in rebuilding their lives and incomes: some women fry cassava cakes, plantains, and fish; others load water tanks and bags of rice onto boats; small shops sell basic provisions; hawkers bellow to advertise their wares. There are moments of lightness too — children playing in the sand, youths swaying to the latest Afrobeat and root reggae, lively discussions, and games of Ludo on street corners.
Yet, the damage from the fire is painfully visible everywhere. So are the new problems that the rains have brought: the narrow litter-strewn alleyways are slushy, potholes filled with stagnant water; and the shallow drains are piled high with garbage. Mosquitoes swarm. The tents donated by aid agencies are not holding up well to the downpours, either. Ramata Kamara, who lost her home in the fire, says her shelter may not last long.
“When it rains, we have to put a bucket where it leaks, and the tent has started tilting because of the breeze,” she says. “We use sticks to hold up the tent a little.”
Many people still sleep on blankets or tarpaulin laid out on the damp ground, while others use bricks to make makeshift platforms. In some tents, people share their living quarters with their ducks and chickens.
Akim Sheriff, who coordinates emergency response for Save The Children, was part of the team on the ground after the fire. He says the tents pose a major risk and could be the precursor to another “massive disaster”, as they are easily waterlogged and offer little to no defence against the strong rain expected in the coming months. Already, there have been instances of flooding nearby, including on Kissy Road, due to short bursts of torrential rain. It’s a worrying sign about what the rest of the season could bring. Since national agencies and NGOs are still busy with Susan’s Bay relief, minimal attention has been paid to essential prevention and mitigation measures for floods, such as constructing storm drains, cleaning out gutters, and mobilising people to prepare.
“Two weeks after the fire, parts of Susan’s Bay were starting to flood,” says Miles. “A big effort needs to be put in place to deal with the pressure [of rain]. The big question around Susan’s Bay is what comes next? And how do we handle such a vulnerable area with large amounts of NGO commitment already, as we move into rainy season?”
James Riak, Assistant Country Director of Programmes for the humanitarian agency GOAL, acknowledges that disaster resources are being concentrated on recovery efforts rather than prevention. “Humanitarian agencies are still planning on how they can respond,” he says. “But there has been no major meeting to discuss the way forward and plan for the worst months of the rainy season like last year."
Riak points out that difficult choices have to made about prioritising limited resources. “When communities are displaced," he says, "priority becomes shelter and not preparedness for flooding ."
The current imbalance in the use of disaster resources is due to a number of factors. One of these is a “duplication of effort” in the response to the Susan’s Bay fire.
“The NDMA [National Disaster Management Agency] was able to get people together, and there were a lot of resources mobilised from the government and the private sector,” Riak says. “However, it could have been coordinated better. Better organisation would have meant that the resources could have lasted for a much longer time.”
The NDMA was launched late in 2020, to equip the country to deal independently with crises. The fire at Susan’s Bay came as the agency was coming into being, taking over duties previously overseen by the Office of National Security. NDMA, thus, had only a small team, limited resources, and no office at that point — which made it difficult for it to coordinate relief efforts.
There are other, related issues inhibiting the NDMA. International aid for previous disaster events were running dry and there is a considerable lack of trained personnel for disasters. As a result, some events from the end of 2020 are yet to be addressed, at a time when the NDMA is struggling to manage the fallouts from Susan’s Bay as well.
In addition to these systemic issues, Akim Sheriff says that disasters, because of their very nature, are difficult to be prepared for. Supplies of blankets, food, and temporary shelter are limited, and there is the possibility that they will not suffice if multiple areas are affected.
For these reasons, it is crucial to focus on prevention and mitigation. One way of doing this is through building community awareness, disaster management experts say. And while there is some progress on this front, there is a “lot more work to be undertaken” in this area.
Sierra Leone’s Meteorological Agency, too, has emphasised a preventative approach since it is not always possible to predict the effects of downpours. Ibrahim Sei Kamara said that based on its vulnerability assessment, the Agency has recommended that areas prone to flooding––among them, Lakka, Hamilton, Kaningo, Kroo Bay, Dundas Street, and Susan’s Bay––should build coastal defence walls to protect the communities from floods and rising sea levels. The agency has also rolled out early warning systems such as detailed daily weather forecasts that are shared on social media and a colour-coded system of flags to indicate rising sea levels. It has also recruited local volunteers to educate areas on daily forecasts.
Kamara believes communication with the community, including through the media, is an essential pre-emptive measure. “We are training people in the coastal settlements [to educate others] about our daily weather forecast,” he says. “We have tried to build a good relationship with the media, too, because we know they have the ability to ensure our early warning efforts reach millions at once.”
The role of news media in disaster management, experts agree, is critical. But information dissemination can only go so far, particularly in the current situation plagued by seemingly never-ending relief work, where one disaster has encroached into disaster planning at a strategic level, and delayed the transition into the recovery phase for the survivors of Susan’s Bay. There needs to be active cooperation between the local communities, leading ministries, the NDMA, and particularly international NGOs on the ground, says Miles. Together, they need to provide transitional support measures — from finance, family counselling, help with schooling, flooding and fire guidance and possibly even some relocation — for a sustained period of time.
“What’s needed is not just a top-down approach or a bottom-up approach, but a meeting of the two,” says Miles. “We need to respect the integrity of the Susan’s Bay communities. At the same time, we need to build back better to give people a more resilient future."
Additional inputs by Mahawa Kamara. Photographs by Suphian Bangura