Neighbors of the Jackson Point fuel terminal have raised concerns about authorities’ handling of Sunday night’s evacuation and the level of communication about the threat posed by the fire inside a diesel tank at the South Church Street facility.
Hundreds of residents and tourists within a mile of the terminal were forced to find new accommodations for the night after the roads were closed for more than eight hours in the area. Residents said they understood the need for the evacuation and praised the response from emergency services, but many were concerned about a lack of updated information throughout the night.
Some homeowners said they slept in their cars with their pets, waiting for news. Others found hotels or stayed with friends for the night, while others milled around at police roadblocks waiting to find out when they could go home.
The Red Cross temporarily opened its shelter on Huldah Avenue, but many residents said they were unaware of this. The shelter remained open until the all clear was given early Monday morning.
The cordon, which spanned from Paradise restaurant in George Town to Pure Art on South Sound, and at one point encompassed a large part of Walkers Road, was reduced to a half-mile radius around 10 p.m., enabling some people to return home. Those living closer to the facility were not able to return home till 2:45 a.m.
Some residents said the incident left them concerned about living so close to a fuel depot, given that there was deemed to be enough danger for a mass evacuation lasting nearly eight hours.
Police say the evacuation was advisory rather than compulsory, but once people left the area, they were not allowed back inside the cordon.
Keith Sahm, general manager of Sunset House, said he shut down the hotel’s restaurant and bar around 7 p.m. and allowed emergency services to use it as a command center.
He said he took the hotel guests to Craft on West Bay Road for dinner.
“We had around 25 guests and we called around looking for somewhere for them to stay, but we couldn’t find anywhere that could take them. The Marriott was full, The Ritz-Carlton was full,” he said.
The situation was resolved just after 10 p.m. when guests were given permission to return to the hotel. He said he understood the need to evacuate for safety reasons but was concerned about the level of communication.
He said evacuees were told to check the radio and social media. He suggests in future incidents, authorities could use regular text message blasts through Flow and Digicel networks, something that Hazard Management did in its “tsunami preparedness exercise.”
“The phone companies can send messages to all their customers for a Saturday sale. I’m sure they could send a text to keep people up to date in a situation like this,” Mr. Sahm said.
Several residents had gathered at the police cordon in George Town seeking information around 9 p.m. Some were concerned about pets still inside their homes. Others, with young children, were eager to get home.
But there was no update from police or fire services on if or when the roadblocks would be lifted.
Resident Catherine Spradlin said she was seriously concerned about the lack of communication by emergency officials throughout the evening. She said she was in shock and was wondering if it was safe to live in such close proximity to the fuel depot.
She said she lives within 1,200 feet of the terminal and had no clue anything was going on until she got a text from a friend around 6:30 p.m. – nearly two hours after the fire broke out. However, the message carried a photo of a different fuel tank engulfed in flames and she thought it was a fake.
She said it was not until 8 p.m. that a police officer came door to door informing people of the evacuation. Information was sparse throughout the night, she said, and she knew nothing of the level of danger or how long the evacuation might be in place. She said she knew of many people who had gone home during the fire, despite the evacuation.
“I am aware that people returned home during the evacuation period because they weren’t aware of the Red Cross opening and had only their car to sleep in with their animals,” she said. “There was no additional enforcement, just roads blocked.”
She said she was unaware that Hazard Management was posting updates on Facebook.
“Why on earth didn’t RCIPS and Fire simply share those posts or tell people to look there? Were news outlets even aware of them? That would have been so easy and would have been a huge help to those simply seeking more information.
“I’m a huge supporter of those in uniform and I think they all did a fine job keeping this contained, but had this turned into a bigger situation, I think there would have been catastrophic repercussions or even fatalities due to the epic failure of the notification ‘system.’”
One man, who asked not to be named, said he had slept in his car with his dog, waiting for news. Eventually, he said, he went to the roadblock around 3 a.m. and was told the evacuation order was about to be lifted.
Others had decided earlier to get a hotel room for the night.
Jesse Livingston and his girlfriend were blocked at the police cordon by Paradise restaurant in George Town.
“We left to go to the beach about 4:30 p.m. and when we got back, we couldn’t get home,” he said.
He said they waited for a few hours and decided to book a room at the Westin around 10 p.m.
“I understand, it’s safety first, so it’s all good. It would have been helpful to have some more information about what was going on and if and when we could return,” Mr. Livingston said. “It would have been good if someone from the company [Sol] had been there to explain.
“I understand it is difficult and the public were quite spread out, but we would have appreciated more information.” The couple, who live at the corner of Glen Eden Road and South Church Street, say they are also concerned about the proximity of the fuel depot to a residential area and the flight path of incoming aircraft.
Others, like Stephen O’Dwyer, were able to get home earlier, after police reduced the size of the exclusion zone at around 10 p.m. Mr. O’Dwyer said he had waited at the road block in George Town for information.
“The lack of news was the most concerning thing for people,” he said. “But it looked like it was going to be longer, so we were lucky, I suppose. All’s well that ends well.”
At Eldemire’s Tropical Island Inn, guests were unable to return for the night. Owners Bob Geddes and Tootie Eldemire made the call to find somewhere else to stay at 7 p.m.
Mr. Geddes said the inn had 26 guests, including a large group of marine biology students who had to find new accommodation for the night. He said many of them had been out touring the island when the cordon was put in place and were unable to return.
“We found out this morning that they were able to stay at Comfort Suites. Everybody took it well. They understood there was a problem and we couldn’t do much about it,” Mr. Geddes said.
He said he and some of his neighbors had gone for dinner to wait it out, but later decided to book rooms at the Holiday Inn. “Around 7 p.m., I figured this could be a major issue. If they hadn’t resolved it right away it could go on for a very long time.”
He said it had always been a concern to be so close to the fuel depot and the incident had brought that home.
“I understand that is where they have always been and they have got a big investment there, but it is not a great place for them to be – in the middle of a residential area and on the flight path of incoming aircraft.”
Chief Fire Officer David Hails said an initial debrief of the incident had taken place Monday, at which issues over communication with the public on the night had been raised. He said there would be discussions between fire, police and Hazard Management about the issue
“That is one of the areas that was highlighted and we are going to look at that going forward to see if we can improve on that situation,” he said.