Disaster Reconstruction Authority (DRA) officials yesterday defended the widely criticized ecumenical service held for Hurricane Dorian victims on Abaco on Friday, during which 55 victims were buried.
Nearly nine months after Dorian, which wreaked havoc on Abaco and Grand Bahama, none of the 55 bodies that were buried have been identified.
At the service, crowds gathered under the assumption that their missing loved ones were in one of the caskets. Many complained that they were not allowed near the caskets.
DRA Deputy Chairman Algernon Cargill said the plans for the service were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Initially our plans included a burial and a church service with all of the family members that were identified and anyone who wanted to attend or participate in the funeral service,” he said during a virtual press conference yesterday.
“Since the plans were finalized, we were further challenged with the issue of COVID-19, since the orders restricted us from having that large service.”
Cargill added, “The topography of the burial site, together with the elements of the COVID-19 laws, did not allow us to invite all of the family members to the top where the burial was happening.”
Archdeacon Keith Cartwright, who moderated the service, said it went well, despite the protests of a small group.
“The decision was made that before we began the service of final burial, that family members who were present would be allowed to ascend the hill and pass by each of the caskets and pay their final respects,” he said.
“There were some persons who were at the family tent who were intent on protesting.”
The government spent nearly $360,000 on the burial, Cargill said.
He added that the DRA had also paid a mortuary company $46,000 for the recovery of the dead on Abaco. He said the authority had originally received a quote of $275,000 from a mortuary service for the burial of the remains.
“But what we decided to do instead…was to partner with the Bahamas United Funeral Directors and Morticians Association,” Cargill said.
“In this way we ensured that we had a fair and competitive price of all of the local morticians who were a part of this organization. So as compared to the quote of $275,000 we received from one single mortuary company, we received a similar quote of $247,500 from the association to bury the dead.
“In addition to that, we received the cost for the vaulted concrete graves from the association and that cost $65,000, which was also less than the cost from the local mortuary company.”
The service was originally scheduled to take place in March, but was postponed as the country entered a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The DRA noted that the pandemic also caused a delay with the process of identifying and the ultimate burial of storm victims.
Officials said yesterday that DNA analysis profiling is still ongoing in an attempt to identify the bodies, but that laboratories processing DNA samples have shifted priorities due to COVID-19, thus causing further delay.
Superintendent Rochelle Deleveaux, director of the Royal Bahamas Police Force’s forensic laboratory, said yesterday that while they are confident they will get full DNA profiles of the victims who remain unidentified, they have not received sufficient DNA samples from relatives of the missing to be able to match them.
“We experienced a very serious inhibition with the samples when they were first analyzed,” she said.
“We made a calculated decision when we identified a second forensic facility to analyze the samples a second time.
“We chose that facility because they are well able to maximize difficult samples and generate full profiles from difficult samples.
“So we have every confidence that we will be able to get full DNA profiles from the remains that have been collected and submitted to us.”
Deleveaux said they need more relatives of the missing to come forward and give DNA samples.
“If we do not have a family member’s sample to compare that to, then we really cannot identify the individual,” she said.
Deleveaux acknowledged that some people may be illegal migrants who are afraid to come forward with their DNA. However, she said there is a safe way for people fearful of immigration to submit their DNA samples.
“What we’ve done is we have gone into the shelters in plain clothes,” she said.
“We have taken individuals such as pastors and asked them to speak with their community members, letting them know that we are not here on any activity as far as them being deported. We just want them to come forward and report anyone missing and to collect specimens.”