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Trauma, unemployment and poverty engulf survivors a year after

Behind the national wailing, political blame game and accusations of an inefficient city authority are the personal stories of those who survived the night the spirit of Accra drowned and burned. VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED

 

“I have passed through a lot of pain because of this disaster. My face and arms were badly burnt. I have found it difficult to lift anything since then.”

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On a balcony overlooking the settlement of Old Fadama, Joseph Obeng laments about his life a year after he was involved in a national tragedy.

A government committee set up after the disaster to determine the cause and suggest recommendations put the death toll at 150 people with an estimated equal number suffering various degrees of injury.

However, behind the national wailing, political blame game and accusations of an inefficient city authority are the personal stories of those who survived the night the spirit of Accra drowned and burned.

Joseph, 33, used to work as a second-hand clothes seller. He had been at the Kwame Nkrumah Circle trying to help a policeman push his car out of the floods to the fuel station when the fire begun. He spent six months at the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital’s Burns Centre.

“I have not been able to work for a year,” Joseph says with a crackling in his voice. During his interview with Pulse News, he agonizes about the lost time and income that the disaster beset him with.

Joseph cannot stretch his arms to lift very basic things which means he simply cannot return to his job or even start a new one.

Joseph’s story is like that of many others, such as Ernestina Addo, a 29 year old woman who worked as a waitress at a local restaurant known as Honest’s Chef. She suffered burns on her face.

“My life has been greatly changed by what happened. A lot of things have changed in my life. I would have moved a lot more forward in life by now. Before the disaster, I was active and productive. All that I have strived for and acquired have been lost because of this disaster. My finances and other factors have greatly diminished.”

A year after making a miraculous recovery, Ernestina is unemployed, cash strapped and her situation has further been compounded following a hit and run incident on her way to church that has made walking difficult.

For those who have been able to return to work, business is a tiny fraction of what it used to be. Apart from suffering burns to the legs (leaving her paralyzed for two months), Joyce Asamoah’s booming drinks bar was reduced to a humble hut and a table following a demolition by city authorities after the disaster.

The 30 year old single mother of two boys has also been left traumatised by the experience.

“Since I returned to work, I have not passed by the road where the fuel station is because I am afraid. Sometimes when I am in the dark and I see light, I get scared. Even when I see fire while cooking, I get scared. When we go to the hospital, they advise us not to harbour such fears because it was an accident.”

Trying not to harbour such fears will be difficult for Joyce because a year after the disaster the site is yet to be cleared.

Accra’s position as a rapidly growing African city means it is a magnet for migrants seeking better opportunities. Uchenna Akpoxioha, like many of his compatriots is a Nigerian businessman who works in the bustling technology industry at the Kwame Nkrumah Circle.

He was at a bus stop near the fuel station trying to catch a ride home when the fire began. Akpoxioha suffered burns to his face and hands and his home was demolished by city authorities. After scraping together enough money to rent a new house he is now trying to rekindle his business.

Compensation

Government announced that it would be footing the medical bills of survivors; which survivors confirmed it did.

However, they say they have not received any form of compensation since coming out of hospital.

Pulse News gathers that compensation of 10,000 cedis was rather given to the families of those who died and not survivors. Compensation was handled by the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) and the National Disaster Management Organization (NADMO).

Alex Mensah, who used to work as a driver, is still nursing wounds a year later after suffering severe face and hand burns.

According to Alex, he met a manager at Goil who directed him to the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) where victims were supposed to get compensation. However, the AMA told him the compensation was rather for families who lost relatives in the disaster.

“When I was discharged, I went to the AMA and I was told the money was for the families of those who died. I went back and then met a secretary called Mama Jane. I was told to exercise patience. I call her regularly but I have not got anything. No money.”

While government paid for all the medical expenses, many of these survivors were productive people and the disaster gravely affected their ability to return to work or destroyed their sources of income. With their livelihoods gone, these survivors have been living on the benevolence of groups and individuals and not the state.

What happens to those such as Alex and Joseph who have been maimed forever and may never be able to return to work again?

Pulse News reached the AMA for a comment on compensation and on other matters concerning the disaster but those interview requests were repeatedly denied.

Responsibility

Joseph Obeng is disappointed about the fact that no government official took responsibility for a disaster that has changed his life forever.

“I feel really bad seeing that all those people who were supposed to prevent the disaster are still in office. They are still enjoying the benefits of office. If they had cleared the drains and done their jobs, the disaster would not have happened”

After the disaster, there were intense calls for the resignation or dismissal of officials whose duties it was to prevent the disaster including the Mayor of Accra; Alfred Oko Vanderpuijie. In an interview after the disaster, the mayor said he did not owe people like Joseph an apology for his office’s failure to institute measures to stop this disaster from happening.

“I owe them support to ensure that these things do not happen, but I don’t owe anyone an apology.”

Not one official of the AMA, the Ministry of Science and Environment or NADMO took responsibility for this disaster. 12 months later, Mayor Vanderpuijie is overseeing activities to ‘commemorate’ the disaster.

This situation presents a sharp contrast to the resignation of New Orleans police chief Eddie Compass and the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (US version of NADMO) Michael Brown in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005

What has changed?

Not much has changed since the disaster. Accra is still incredibly filthy and the knee-jerk demolition of buildings in waterways ceased and squatters have either moved back or have found new informal settlements.

A proposed ban on certain kinds of plastics is yet to come into force.

On Thursday, the mayor said the dredging of the Korle Lagoon and the Odaw channel will ensure that flooding in Accra will belong to history.

However, the rains of May 21, 2016 sadly exposed what has not changed.

Major parts of Accra including Dome, Kaneshie, Ashaiman and Mallam experienced flooding bringing fears of imminent flooding when the rains intensify in June through to August.

Ghana’s Preparedness for Disaster

Last year’s disaster exposed the unpreparedness of emergency service providers such the fire service, the ambulance service, hospitals and NADMO.

The Korle Bu, 37 Military, Police and Ridge hospitals appeared overwhelmed by the scale of victims that needed care after the disaster. There were shortages of basic hospital materials such as gloves which prompted a massive donation drive from the public.

The public relations officer of the Ghana National Fire Service Timothy Osafo-Affum told Pulse News that the service lacked modern fire-fighting equipment.

“We still need more support in terms of additional fire tenders. We also need rescue tenders, fire boats and even helicopters (fire bombers) to help us achieve our aim.

“We need ambulances too. Fire departments around the world operate fire as well as ambulances but here, we cannot boast of five ambulances across the country. Which is not good. It is our wish to get ambulances to complement our jobs as fire fighters.”

The situation is no different at the Ghana Ambulance Service which announced in February 2016 after the Kintampo bus accident that, the country had only 165 ambulances instead of a required 1,000 for a population of 25 million.

The country has tried to on move since the disaster, but sadly we have not done enough to prevent this from happening again. The same people are in office, emergency services are under-resourced and the same situations persist.

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