Give it to us straight
“I think the Caribbean countries face rising oceans and they face increase in the severity of hurricanes. This is something that is very, very scary to all of us. The island states in the world represent — I remember this number — one half of one percent of the carbon emissions in the world. And they will — some of them will disappear.” — Steven Chu
Of all the columns that I have written in the past 11 years, this is one of the most difficult to put to paper. Hurricane Dorian has left an indelible impression on The Bahamas that will last for many decades; a killer hurricane that will be remembered and recounted by our children and theirs for very many years to come.
One week ago, as the residents of the northern Bahamas were preparing for what, at the time, was a Category 5 hurricane, thousands of Bahamians were hoping and praying that the damage accompanying Dorian’s arrival would be manageable.
Many Bahamians quietly anticipated that the most destructive hurricane to visit our shores in a century would be devastating. However, never in our wildest imagination did we anticipate that this hurricane would extinguish the number of lives that it has and wreak the incalculable property damage that we have witnessed during its unwelcomed visit.
Even the authorities did not expect that Dorian would create the extensive carnage that it did. Had they done so, advance plans for the post-hurricane recovery efforts surely would have been designed with a rapid response to the utter destruction that accompanied Dorian’s onslaught.
Considering the devastation that resulted, first in Abaco, and then in Grand Bahama, we would like to consider this: has The Bahamas government’s response to this national tragedy been acceptable and has it been forthright in its reporting to the public in the aftermath of this storm?
Loss of life
During and following the passage of the hurricane, incredible stories began to emerge about the extensive loss of life that resulted from Dorian’s fury, especially on Abaco. For several days following the assault on the length and breadth of the island of Abaco, the government stuck to an official fatality count of five souls on that island. There were vastly different stories, as well as some photographs, that were posted on social media that continually and consistently contradicted the government’s report about the number of fatalities.
There were graphic reports that recounted the large number of bodies that residents on Abaco personally witnessed. Yet it was several days after the hurricane departed that island that the government finally revised the death toll to 30 — then 45.
Five days after Dorian’s departure from Abaco, Minister of Health Dr. Duane Sands was the only government official who guardedly advised an anxious population that the death toll would be “staggering”, without giving any specific indication of what kind of numbers the death toll really represented.
From the beginning, following the hurricane, residents of those ill-fated islands who survived informed Bahamians that the death toll would be in the hundreds, if not thousands – with very many missing — a far cry from any inkling indicated by the authorities. As painful as it might be to both articulate and to hear, the government should have told us the truth: that they expected that the death toll on Abaco could be in the hundreds or higher, a fact that was already reported by many Abaconians on the ground and vastly circulated by social media as well as the international reporters, many of whom were there during and shortly after the hurricane.
On September 6, 2019, Reuters stated, “The medical chief of staff at Princess Margaret Hospital in Nassau said two refrigerated, 40-foot trucks would be needed to hold the ‘staggering’ number of bodies that were expected to be found. ‘We’ve ordered lots of body bags,’ said Dr. Caroline Burnett-Garraway.”
We can only pray that those who lost their lives will be accounted for and that their families and loved ones will soon be able to bring closure to this disastrous episode in their lives.
Loss of property
Early official reports from authoritative sources stated that 60 percent of the buildings on Abaco were destroyed by Dorian’s fury. However, that figure appears to be low, given the aerial photographs and videos provided by cable news networks and other international outlets.
There are some settlements in Abaco that were completely decimated. Other settlements where buildings still stood were few and far between. A casual observer could probably more accurately estimate that there was a much higher destruction of property, possibly approaching 90 percent instead of the 60 percent initially reported from the flyover by some government officials.
Isn’t it amazing that the government could so definitively comment on the loss of property sooner than they could on the loss of human lives?
Again, the government should just tell us the truth.
Evacuation from Abaco
Efforts to evacuate thousands of residents who attempted to leave Abaco did not go smoothly. There are countless examples of persons who unsuccessfully tried to leave but were prevented from doing so. Worse, others were charged airfare by our own national airline, Bahamasair.
On September 6, 2019, a Reuters article entitled “Thousands try to flee hurricane-devastated Bahamas islands” reported: “Four survivors told Reuters on Thursday they had been charged $75 for a seat on a Bahamasair flight from Abaco to Nassau. ‘I thought a relief flight would be free,’ said Anthony Thompson, 27, who said that he paid the fare for himself, his wife and sister. ‘I thought wrong.’”
It was not until a few days after the storm had passed, after several hundred, at least, had paid for their evacuation, that Bahamasair issued a press release to clarify the matter. The prime minister himself, finally on the ground in Abaco, confirmed that all those wishing to evacuate would be able to do so free of charge.
We have heard there is discussion about reimbursing those who paid the $75 per person, but, in the midst of this crisis, how Bahamasair intends to find those storm refugees who no longer have an address, in order to refund their money is a mystery.
There were also many persons in Nassau and elsewhere who wanted to assist in the evacuation effort by flying into Abaco but were prevented from doing so for several days by government red tape. It now appears that the prohibition is being gradually lifted, many days later, and flights are becoming more organized in order to avoid mid-air collisions of rescue craft and sightseeing planes.
Fortunately, Sebas Bastian, CEO of Island Luck, used his personal resources to arrange four private planes to airlift as many persons, initially the injured, women and children, from Abaco. He has promised to continue his evacuation efforts until everyone who wanted to leave can do so.
Also, a cruise ship was allowed to come into Grand Bahama, where they boarded over 1,500 evacuees who were then brought to Palm Beach, Florida, on Saturday. They were greeted by family and friends and processed by special U.S. Customs and Immigration personnel who are trained to deal with refugees fleeing from traumatic situations.
There have been countless attempts to assist those in need, often frustrated by the red tape and the lack of direction they have encountered.
One of the most well-known stories comes from the attempts to assist the hurricane victims by world-famous Spanish Chef José Andrés and his NGO, World Central Kitchen, with its team of master chefs.
Chef Andrés was in The Bahamas well before the hurricane hit, identifying where his team could set up in the islands projected to be most damaged by the hurricane. He did many, many interviews with local and international media about his plans to do in The Bahamas as he had done in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria: feeding upwards of 20,000 hungry people per day.
However, because of the difficulty of reaching the devastated areas, his first attempts were limited to preparing thousands of sandwiches in Atlantis’ kitchens and then transporting them to Abaco. His frustration became visible when a reporter for CBS This Morning hitched a ride on Chef Andrés’ chopper to Green Turtle and Treasure Cays and heard – and recorded and broadcast – how some Bahamians received him with less than stellar enthusiasm, almost sending him and his sandwiches back where they came from because they expected more than sandwiches.
It was then Chef Andrés, who had done things the proper way, even reportedly meeting with the prime minister to inform him of the plans to feed Bahamians, who told the reporter how frustrating it was, when, after the hurricane, he simply asked the Bahamian government to direct him where he should go and to whom he should speak. He was still awaiting the answer.
However, as he did in Puerto Rico, Chef Andrés persevered and, according to his Tweets, over the weekend his two helicopters delivered thousands of hot meals to Abaco and the World Central Kitchen is up and running in Grand Bahama.
Outstanding humanitarian efforts
Despite the accelerated level of frustration experienced by those who are attempting, unsuccessfully, to assist those affected, we are impressed by the enormous humanitarian efforts that have been extended to The Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian.
Numerous individual and corporate friends of The Bahamas in Boston; Minnesota; Atlanta; Miami; Washington, DC; Los Angeles and other cities are attempting to raise money and supplies for Abaco and Grand Bahama.
We have observed tremendous support from the governments of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the Caribbean and other countries and institutions, all of which is greatly appreciated.
A decisive, methodical plan of action
A good friend recently reminded me of the basic rules of managing disasters which the United States Marines have perfected. The first rule is to secure your perimeter; establish medical facilities; set up a food supply chain and distribution network; shoot the first set of rioters and looters to psychologically manage the crowd; rescue the living; recover and bury the dead; and evacuate the sick and living. The government would be well advised to follow this script.
In the final analysis, Abaco and Grand Bahama will overcome the challenges that Hurricane Dorian created. We are a resilient, caring people who value life and love our families, our friends and our country. We also know that, in the fullness of time, this, too, shall pass.
In the meantime, however, the government must provide leadership and inspire confidence. Above all, when all is said and done, it is incumbent on the government to give us the full scope of the devastation, including the death count. By all accounts, we know it is well beyond the 45 being reported.
Just give it to us straight.
• Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis and Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic & Litigation Support Services. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.