Thousands of names of people reported missing after Hurricane Dorian were removed from the official list after police took responsibility for that aspect of the storm’s aftermath, but no explanation was ever given for why the list was “pruned”, former Minister of Health Dr. Duane Sands said in Parliament yesterday.
In what many regarded as an explosive acknowledgement that the government botched the handling of the crisis, Sands called for coroner’s inquests to be convened and for the Minnis administration to apologize for how it handled this critical matter.
“Let us dissect the process used to arrive at the official count of 33 – even as many more families mourn missing persons,” said Sands in his first contribution in the House of Assembly since resigning from Cabinet on May 4.
“We started with a list of several thousand persons missing. That list was managed by the Ministry of Social Services. We ended with a missing persons list controlled by the RBPF (Royal Bahamas Police Force) that included fewer names than the number of unidentified persons buried.
“To this day, we do not know what happened that caused thousands or hundreds of names to be excluded from the official list.
“There may be reasonable, justifiable reasons for pruning the list. But those reasons and processes have not been shared and explained to the public. Because of that process, we have raised many questions and squandered credibility.
“We did not handle the identification of those who lost their lives or those still missing well.
“The official death toll post Dorian stands at 74.
“But the actual death toll and reconciliation of missing persons remains unknown. Many families continue to grieve not only for the loss of loved ones but for the uncertainty of what became of their remains.
“While the majority of Bahamians have returned to their ordinary lives following the storm, many from Grand Bahama and especially from Abaco continue in states of suspended animation. We must empathize with them because they have certainly had their lives shattered.
“As of today, we do not know, collectively, who is lost, missing, or missing and presumed dead.
“I fear that we have not sufficiently elevated this matter as a national priority.
“There was too little focused attention and management of the issue of missing and deceased persons. Responsibility was spread over multiple ministries and government agencies. It was believed that this would ensure greater clarity. But, in action, it proved to be a recipe for disaster.
“For us to close this chapter before another is opened, and bear in mind we are now almost two weeks into hurricane season, let us look objectively and honestly at our approach to missing persons and deceased persons.”
The remains of 55 storm victims were laid to rest on May 22 during a burial service organized by the Disaster Reconstruction Authority. Emotions ran high as distraught Abaco residents with missing loved ones looked on in the distance and protested.
The burials took place nearly nine months after Dorian ripped across Abaco and nearby Grand Bahama.
Sands said, “People want to know why we have no DNA matches for those persons recently buried.
“The public deserves to know how many samples were taken, how many times have those samples been tested, and by whom?
“Why is there no publicly accessible listing or database of missing persons? What are the names of the people lost – the mothers, fathers and children?
“If we are to get closure as a country, we must accept the loss, outline the process used, admit our missteps and operationalize systems to do better.
“Perhaps this is simply because we continue to exist in an environment where information is not shared with the public freely, openly, and frequently.
“Winston Churchill said, ‘Never waste a crisis.’
“Now we must demonstrate why we are transparent and open to scrutiny and criticism.
“Dorian has taught us that while we all suffer, the most vulnerable, the least powerful, the least connected suffer the most. That suffering is deep, scarring, and goes beyond the bone to the soul.
“In The Bahamas, our population of undocumented migrants has paid a premium with possessions lost, lives of loved ones lost and we have not consistently assured that they were afforded safe spaces to interact with government agencies.”
Sands added, “We have not completed the grieving from Dorian. That incomplete grieving was interrupted by a greater trauma — COVID-19. But that grieving debt will have to be paid; either pay it now or we will pay it later.
“Let us agree to convene the coroner’s inquests to bring closure to grieving families.
“Identify and empower a single empathetic team. Separate the process from the spectre of immigration intervention. Start a public conversation and then let us apologize for getting it wrong the first time.
“Let us publish the names of the lost souls and then formally memorialize them.”
Back in January, Sands told The Tribune that the government at some point will have to declare that over 200 people died in Hurricane Dorian, but he said he could not officially say that as that is a multi-ministerial decision.
Asked about that statement soon after, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis told reporters, “I go by the facts. The facts are that there are 70 deaths. That’s the facts. I don’t care what is said. That’s the facts.”