On September 1, Category 5 Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the Bahamas. More than two weeks later, the official death toll still hovers at 50; an eerily low number given grassroots searches have counted more than 4,000 still missing; reports claim that at least 70,000 people between Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands in the Northern Bahamas are without shelter. A huge portion of the country is still without potable water, power, and even the resources to store the bodies of the dead. With relief efforts underway, but facing multifaceted roadblocks, many Bahamians are taking recovery efforts into their own hands.
Nathaniel Prince Lewis was born and raised on Grand Bahama Island. Like all Bahamians, hurricanes have punctuated Lewis’s life. But Dorian, he said, was different. Not just because it was one of the more extreme storms to hit the country, but because he believes the government fell short on both preparation and reaction to the disaster.
“In no uncertain terms, our government is a failure, an absolute complete abysmal failure,” Lewis told me. “And they definitely, without question, dropped the ball when it came to both the preparation and more importantly when it came to the response to Hurricane Dorian.”
Since Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis began his bid for office, voices against him were loud and cutting. In the Nassau Guardian, one of the country’s largest newspapers, op-eds with headlines like “Hubert Minnis will undermine Bahamian democracy” and “The great Hubert Minnis hoax and sham” were not uncommon in the leadup to Minnis taking office. With the Dorian relief effort as one of Minnis’s first major tests in nation-wide disaster management, many Bahamians are growing even more vocal about their disdain for his leadership.
“Out of touch. Delusional. Repugnant. Shameful. Embarrassing,” Lewis, described Minnis’s leadership in the wake of Dorian. “A total complete disgrace. Even his supporters have gotten to the point where they have begun turning on him and questioning his response to the disaster that took place on Grand Bahama.”
Lewis isn’t alone in his scathing review of Minnis’s attempts to manage the recovery. A post on a Facebook group with just under 800 members called, “HEY MR. PRIME MINISTER!!” — one of many bearing a similar message — urges Prime Minister Minnis to “get off [his] rich ass and help.”
“You've got thousands of people who are still displaced, thousands of people who still don't have food to eat, thousands of people who still don't have homes to go to,” Lewis said.
Gitte Goodrum also lives on Grand Bahama Island and runs an international school near the town of Freeport. Having endured more than two decades of hurricane seasons, Goodrum prepared for Dorian the same as she has for every previous storm. Because the Goodrums’s home is situated on high ground, they often shelter neighbors and friends during particularly bad storms where flood risks run high.
“We always say that if we flood, the whole island will flood,” Goodrum said.
In recent years, the country was hit by Matthew and Irma, the latter of which contributed to the 2017 extreme weather events from which islands like Puerto Rico are still in the process of recovering. However, the increase in speed and strength of deadly storms in the Carribean means that countries like the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and several other island nations have smaller and smaller windows of recovery between natural disasters. A 2017 NOAA study predicted that as the Earth gets warmer, Atlantic basin hurricanes will increase in windspeed and rainfall; communities in the Caribbean may already be feeling these effects.
Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands were hit the hardest by Dorian. According to Goodrum, however, structures on Grand Bahama are built to a stricter building code, and so the damage there didn’t initially look quite as bad as on the Abaco Islands, where communities were all but completed razed. Birdseye view footage of Marsh Harbor on Great Abaco Island shows a grid of rivers where streets used to be and piles upon piles of unidentifiable debris. Immigrant neighborhoods like The Mudd, where many Haitian families lived, were almost completely underwater.
“When you fly over it, you look at the roofs and go, ‘oh, that doesn’t look bad,’” Goodrum said of Grand Bahama, “but you can’t see what has happened underneath… everything blew through those houses, everything is gone.”
And that’s exactly what Minnis did. One of the incidents that sparked a surge in criticism against the prime minister was a comment he made after a flyover to assess the country’s damage from above. According to several sources and individuals on the ground, Minnis said Grand Bahama had sustained “minor damage.” That offhanded characterization was, for Lewis, Goodrum, and many residents on Grand Bahama, a slap in the face.
“For someone who was underwater, literally, who had to swim to safety, who lost everything, to tell that person the damage done to them with minimal is insulting, is infuriating,” Lewis said, “and it speaks to that individual’s lack of empathy and being completely out of touch with reality.”
During our conversation, Goodrum made several emphatic asides recognizing how fortunate her family has been. In a country where the economy is heavily dependent on international tourism, local reports of a widening wealth gap over the past several years have exacerbated displacement, damage, and the ability for many communities to recover after the storm.
That’s why, almost immediately after Dorian, Bahamians started organizing their own recovery and rescue efforts. Dozens of Facebook groups and Instagram accounts popped up to crowdsource aid requests, look for missing people, and report evacuations. All these pages have one thing in common: a deep and passionate dissatisfaction with how the government is handling the crisis.
“There’s two crises that’s going on in The Bahamas,” Lewis said. “There’s a humanitarian crisis, but there's also the leadership crisis.”
The National Emergency Management Agency is the Bahamas’ emergency response and preparedness agency that operates at the behest of the cabinet office. The agency’s social media presence has been riddled with positive self-affirmations about its response to Dorian. On Facebook the agency wrote, “The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Antonio Guterres complimented the Government of The Bahamas on its quick response to Hurricane Dorian, during a joint press conference with Prime Minister the Most Hon. Dr. Hubert Minnis.” Posts and updates like this are littered with responses from Bahamians that contradict this positivity.
Lewis, who used to work for the Bahamian government, told me he believes NEMA shouldn’t even be referred to as a formal government agency.
“As far as like a full government formal agency stocked with personnel ready to go preparing for a disaster,” he said, “that they don't have.”
The challenges and frustrations facing survivors of Dorian are staggering, and relief is distributed inequitably. “A lot of aid that is being sent, if it goes to Nassau, we will likely not see it. They [they government] will send it to Abaco and it will not come here,” Goodrum told me. “We can’t get aid that comes straight to us.”
The lack of aid for survivors, however, isn’t the most gut-wrenching challenge facing Bahamians right now. Goodrum said that Grand Bahama Island ran out of body bags for the dead just a couple of days after the hurricane. Residents on Great Abaco Island have reported that the smell of decomposing bodies that haven’t been found or properly stored hangs heavily in the air.
Goodrum said that on Grand Bahama they’ve been storing the overflow bodies that don’t fit in the morgue in a refrigerated container. She said that she’d heard some of the first aid flights that came into the island weren’t focused on bringing in survival supplies, meals, or water; they brought in body bags.
“The corpses are being stored in [containers], but they can't give the official official death count because those corpses haven't been processed yet,” Goodrum said.
As a result of the storm, the governments’ slow recovery response, and the lack of aid coming to the island, Goodrum said that many businesses in her community are shutting their doors for good, and that some schools may not resume classes until 2020.
The international academy that Goodrum runs was almost entirely flooded, and the campus remains virtually unusable. However, the school opened for the semester because Goodrum began hosting makeshift classes in her home, in a nearby hotel, and in the only campus structure that remains partially useable. They only have running, non-potable water for two hours each morning, so students have to carry a bucket of pool water with them every time they want to use the bathroom.
While survivors of the storm continue to post photos of their ruined homes, flooded streets, and the utter destruction in their communities, tension continues to boil as the government slowly begins to admit that the destruction, and particularly the death toll, might be worse than they originally assessed. In an interview with Guardian Radio, a radio station based in Nassau, Health Minister Duane Sands said “unimaginable information about the death toll and the human suffering,” will continue to surface.
It will be weeks until a final and accurate death count in the Bahamas is announced. Residents on the islands worst affected are growing more and more restless, criticizing all facets of their government and even pleading the Navy to arrest Prime Minister Minnis. And since the Trump administration is not giving protected status to Bahamians displaced by the storm, residents’ options are extremely limited.
“I don't think there will ever be a normal,” Lewis said. “I think it will be an adjustment to the new reality.”