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Groaning Under Harmattan Fire Disasters

19 Jan 2013

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One of the houses detroyed by the fire

Seasonal natural and man-made disasters have become the albatross of Cross River State in the last five years, writes JUDE OKWE after a recent spate of fire disasters in the state

Cross River State has been victim of natural and man-made disasters in recent times. Last rainy season, floods ravaged a greater part of the state as villages, farms, roads and houses were submerged. Fire has now taken over leaving in its wake charred buildings, farms and household property. In both seasonal incidents, agony and poverty have become the lot of the victims and those related to them.
When the rains came late last year, hope for a respite was in sight. But just when the dry season was about to fully set in, harmattan came with its quick combustion. The consequence is the increasing incidents of fire outbreak in different parts of the state. Yet the year is still young and bush burning period far from arrival.

Victims of the flood disaster of last year are yet to get over the shock of the incident let alone recover. Some have just begun rehabilitation on their homes while others appear to be internally displaced as they lack the wherewithal to start a new life. Besides losing homes, the victims equally lost farms and have no means of survival again. They are facing food crisis with famine being imminent.

Victims of the recent fire disasters are facing the same fate too. In rural communities and urban centres affected, life has taken its toll on the victims. They do not know where to start from again as all their life’s savings are gone. Some are suffering from psychological trauma and indulge in soliloquy to vent their frustration.  It is a classic case of mental torture what with children dropping out of school for inability to pay fees and meet other demands.

Government compensation to the victims is not regular and when it comes, it appears to be a drop in the ocean. The number of those affected makes it so. The Cross River State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA)and the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA)have within the limit of their resources cushioned the effect of these disasters with relief materials. Often the process of distributing the relief materials in the affected communities leaves much to be desired.

The year 2013 commenced on a sad note for some people in Ogoja, Calabar South, Obudu and Yala Local Government Areas. In these places, houses and farms were lost to the blazing furnace. A census of the houses affected undertaken by SEMA indicate that over 40 houses and 20 farm lands including rice and yam barns were lost. This has affected 1, 220 people who collectively lost about N50M, according to the agency.
Houses affected include bungalows, one storey-buildings, mud, thatch and fishing kilns. Cash, generators, documents, electronics, beds, cooking utensils, fishing implements, farming tools top the list of household property lost. But in all this, no life was lost unlike the flood disaster that claimed some lives. This is because almost all the fire incidents took place at day time.
Chief Eunan Ishabor, a retired civil servant lost his one storey-building and three other houses in Ogboja, Abakpa in Ogoja Local Government Area rendering his 45 tenants homeless. Eleven stores within the same premises were equally affected. Ishabor in an interview said the cause of the fire was a mystery to him as there was no trace of electrical spark in the compound nor did anyone set the sprawling compound on fire.

In a letter to the chairman of Ogoja Local Government Area and dated January 10, 2013, Ishabor, said the unfortunate incident occurred on January 1st, 2013 at Abakpa, a suburb of Ogoja. He does not reside in Abakapa but a Agiga, a new layout in Ogoja urban that is booming with ultra-modern houses. This satellite settlement is for the well heeled in the local government.
“On that fateful day, while we were in our private residence at Agiga, we had a distressed call that a fire incident had occurred in our property, N0. 25 Ogboja Road, Abakpa Ogoja. Before we could even get there, we discovered that the entire property comprising of 24 standard rooms have been completely razed down by fire.

“Sir, as we write to you, the cause of this fire incident is yet to be unraveled. This has brought untold hardship on us and our entire family as the property lost in this ugly incident is valued at about N15M”, he said. All his tenants including the Ogboja Health Post collectively lost property worth N7, 488, 000. “This brings the total value of property lost by  the landlord and tenants to N22, 488, 000”, he added.  

Owner of an upholstery company in the premises and tenant,  Mr. Dermont Akate described the incident as pathetic as he lost all documents relating to his furniture business including cash. He said the information obtained from his clients to prepare chairs and other materials for them were all gone as the entry book is no more. He appealed to the state government to come to his aid as he was in a trauma.

The man with the most pathetic situation is Matthew Ngore, 28 and a physically challenged of N0. 70 Mayne Avenue Calabar South, Matthew Ngore, 28, and graduate of the University of Calabar. His apartment was razed down and has no roof now to put his head. He lost everything including his certificates. After some days at the receiving end of the vagaries of weather, he was helped by his uncle who gave him a room in his house on temporary basis. Ngore is now appealing for help from public -spirited individuals, groups and organisations as the situation has worsened his condition.

The fiery fires in the Northern Senatorial District  of Cross River State affected many farms. Aided by the harmattan haze, which is a veritable period for bush burning, the farms including harvested yams in barns were roasted. Affected families may suffer famine and poverty as the farm is their only source of income. Bush burning is common in the district between January and April. Young boys take delight in setting fire to roadways while the old burn cleared bushes in readiness for the preparation of mounds for planting. This leads to the wild fire if not put out properly.

Despite early warnings by government and heads of the various villages, bush burning has remained a common practice in the farming communities of the state. Thus, no year passes without villagers, especially farmers bemoaning their fate. The fact, according to our findings, remain that villagers do not learn their lessons. They make the same mistake every year. In some places, fire is deliberately set on a neighbour’s farm as way of settling scores or out of sheer envy.
In Calabar South, fire blazed its tongue on 16 houses on January 5, this year. The fire started from a fishing kiln owned by a fisherman, Apostle Joel Bara of Ine-udo fishing port. The inferno soon spread to the adjoining houses to render all of them homeless. Since then, life has been difficult for them, Bara told THISDAY in an interview in Calabar where he went to plead for assistance.

“I’m appealing to the Cross River State Government to come to my aid to enable me start life again. With N5M I can reorganise my life again. I am finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet now. I can no more feed my family as I depended on fishing for survival. I have been fishing for the past 40 years. My children have dropped out of schools for inability to pay their school fees and meet other academic demands.

“My family and I are now squatting with one of my friends. It is not convenient to do so as he also has a family.  The fire started from my house and spread to 15 others nearby to displace over 16 family heads and their dependants. My two canoes were not spared including fishing nets and other implements. Right now I’m idle as I do not have the money to buy a new canoe, nets and other fishing items. Friends now give me clothes to put on. I’m going through hell now”, he lamented.

After an on the spot assessment of the disaster across the state, the Director General of SEMA, Mr. Vincent Aquah explained that the unprecedented incident has caused untold hardship for the victims and put the cost of the damage at over N50M. He promised that efforts would be made by the agency in collaboration with other stakeholders to bring succour to the victims.

Aquah appealed to the public to be sensitised by the campaigns on how to prevent fire. According to him, it was because members of the public do not heed the advice given by government that they often fall victims of fire disaster. He said the effect of fire was very serious and irreversible hence fire must be handled with care. The director general warned against indiscriminate bush burning in the state.

He commended the State Fire Service for helping to put out the fire in some urban centres and appealed to the service to continue to be proactive and responsive enough to distressed calls in any part of the state even as the authority should update its equipment to conform with the current means of combating fire outbreak. Aquah advised against storing petrol in living houses as such inflammable liquids were enemies to man.

Tags: Life and Style, Life, Harmattan Fire Disasters

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