The current administration’s botched handling of missing persons in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian has dealt an indelible stain to its brand, widened its trust deficit and exposed grieving families to even greater pain and suffering.
Though the inconsistencies uttered by public officials in respect of individuals reported missing since the monster storm roared across Abaco and Grand Bahama last September were already in the public domain, it was stunning to hear Dr. Duane Sands, who resigned as health minister on May 4, use his maiden speech as a backbencher to condemn the government’s management of this critical matter.
It immediately renewed focus on the most crucial element of the storm’s aftermath — that is, the lives lost — and pit Sands against former Cabinet colleagues, who sat quietly in their parliamentary seats as he aimed his guns at the highest levels of government and law enforcement.
He said, “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.”
Though Sands noted there may be reasonable and justifiable reasons for the “pruning” of the list after the police took over, the tone of his statements suggested monkey business in the handling of the matter.
Sands left many wondering why he did not sound the alarm sooner, even if it meant resigning from Cabinet over what he clearly views as the egregious manner in which Dorian’s missing victims, and those confirmed to be deceased, have been dealt with.
Now a backbencher free to speak his mind, Sands cannot divorce himself from the actions taken by the administration he was once a part of, notwithstanding the fact that ministerial responsibility for the process was removed from the Ministry of Health soon after the storm, transferred to the Office of the Prime Minister and the process executed by the police, which under law is the agency responsible for the handling of missing persons reports.
This is why the former minister is facing criticisms in some circles now that he has spoken out in what many regard as a disingenuous and political fashion.
“As a Cabinet minister, I represent the government of The Bahamas,” he said on February 25, 2020, referencing the processing of DNA samples as individuals continued to search for closure.
“At no time did the decisions made for the management of these remains lie solely with me or my ministry.
“That said, having chosen to be an elected member of Parliament and having agreed to be a Cabinet minister, you take the criticism whether it is appropriate or not.
“I can assure you that at every single step of the way, we have sought to do what we believe is right, what is just, what is fair and what is humane.”
But just over three months later, Sands, the backbencher, suggested the government had not done what is just, fair or humane.
He said the government should apologize for getting it wrong the first time and commit to doing better.
Sands added, “The public deserves to know how many [DNA] 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.”
When he spoke with the non-governmental organization Direct Relief, headquartered in the United States, in late October, Sands, when asked about the government’s response to the storm, said, “Overall, I think when the die is cast, or when we are placed in the balance, I doubt that a fair person would say that we were found wanting.”
He now sings a new tune.
While we question his motives for his shifting positions, we agree with Sands, and many others do too, that the government of which he was a part and the police made a mess of how they dealt with the missing persons reports in the weeks and months after Dorian, and did a disservice to families in the slothful manner in which they dealt with seeking to identify the dead.
At no time was there a sense that anyone had full control of the process and that it was being handled in a credible and accountable manner. There is still no sense of same.
While no government minister stood to refute anything Sands was saying as he spoke last Thursday, Minister of National Security Marvin Dames on Sunday released a statement responding to his former Cabinet colleague, accusing him of being disingenuous and expressing shock and disappointment at Sands’ statement.
(Full disclosure: Dames is the brother of the writer of this column.)
He said Sands’ remarks in the House “are particularly surprising given that as the minister of health, he played a leading role in the government’s Hurricane Dorian response and restoration”.
“He was afforded every opportunity to voice his concerns about the process and offer solutions to improve it,” said Dames, who noted that days after the storm, Sands called information suggesting a cover up “false” and “unfortunate” in a Miami Herald article.
In that Miami Herald article several days after Dorian, Sands said, “We’ve heard the numbers, 1,000, 200, 500, 600. We’ve heard all of the claims and the language I have used and the language that the prime minister has used and all of the Cabinet, and NEMA has been a description of the number of confirmed deaths — these are people in the morgue.”
He did add that the government expected the number of dead, confirmed at the time to be 44, to rise “significantly” and in other reports said it was expected to be “staggering”.
Dames stated that Sands’ recent comments “are misleading, and whether intentionally or unintentionally, impinge the good standing efforts of our nation in the eyes of the international community to reopen up old wounds of a people whose lives have been shattered as a result of this tragedy”.
The statement from Dames that “the police missing persons list currently stands at 279” has led to more questions and has resulted in the Minnis administration facing an even greater credibility crisis.
“As the reconciliation process continues, these numbers are expected to fluctuate,” Dames said.
But only three weeks earlier, Assistant Commissioner of Police Solomon Cash told reporters during a virtual press conference held by the Disaster Reconstruction Authority (DRA) that the number of the missing was 33.
Thirty-three to 279 in such a short period does not constitute a fluctuation.
When our reporter asked Dames yesterday to explain the discrepancy, he said, “I don’t know the reason for that. The numbers that were given were not Marvin Dames’ numbers. They are the numbers compiled and taken from the centralized listing.
“The question is [was the number recently given to the media] from a centralized listing? I don’t know. All of these numbers are now in the hands of the police.”
In January, then Commissioner of Police Anthony Ferguson told the media that the number of the missing was 54 — 32 on Abaco and 22 on Grand Bahama.
How the number moved from 54 in January, to 33 on May 25, to 279 on June 14 is anyone’s guess.
If police are only investigating the whereabouts of 33 Dorian victims reported missing, who is looking for the other 246 people?
A fuller explanation is needed.
We cannot imagine the anguish this unfortunate debacle, infused with political subplots, is causing for the families of the dead and those presumed to be dead.
Over the months, the figures have been all over the place, and not with clear explanations.
On September 11, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) said the missing was at 2,500. A day later the figure was 1,300.
After visiting Abaco on September 11, less than two weeks after the storm, former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham told reporters that based on information he had, “there are hundreds of people who died”.
Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis, however, dismissed this and other comments made by Ingraham and former Prime Minister Perry Christie after they (Ingraham and Christie) visited storm-torn Abaco as “unnecessary distraction”.
“We, as a country, do not have the time for divisiveness, partisan politics or jockeying for position,” Minnis said.
Later in the month, on September 27, the prime minister in an address to the United Nations General Assembly said the number of people missing following the storm was about 600.
On October 9, then Social Services Minister Frankie Campbell reported in Parliament that 1,208 people were missing. He advised that the department will print a list of the missing in local dailies.
But Dames said the following day that police only had reports of 282 people missing.
In early October, NEMA said 424 people were still missing.
Reasonable-minded individuals know that in disasters of this magnitude, there will be fluctuations for various reasons, but there has been a sense that the authorities reporting the numbers have not been in contact with each other and have not all been looking at a centralized, verified and credible list.
This has undermined the process.
The list of names promised by Campbell was never published.
Early on, police sent information on missing persons to the media for publication. We published a handful of missing persons bulletins with photos of the missing sent by the police. Police encouraged families with missing relatives to come forward to provide names and photographs that could be sent out.
But early on in the process they abandoned the release of those bulletins.
Confusion on this matter has ensued ever since.
It might be too late to bring credibility to this process, but the authorities should make public the list of the missing, perhaps through an online database.
In the management of this crisis, the authorities had an obligation to the families to treat with more urgency and a greater degree of care how the list was being reconciled. Instead, the impression was left that there were multiple lists of the missing produced by multiple agencies, and they were not always forthcoming with information.
This has fed the still widely held belief that the death toll is much greater than the 74 that has been reported.
In January, Sands told the Tribune that “at some point, the government of The Bahamas will have to declare that over 200 people have died in Hurricane Dorian”.
But he said that would need to be a multi-ministerial decision.
Though there has been no formal apology to the families, officials must have some idea of the mess they made of the missing persons list, and of how they dealt with the process of identifying recovered remains.
If they do not, then they exist in a bigger bubble than we initially imagined.
Grieving families watched from a distance as the remains of 55 unidentified storm victims were buried on May 22, eight months after the hurricane.
Many of them felt disrespected that the burials took place even as the process of seeking to identify Dorian’s dead through DNA matches was not yet concluded.
They still have no closure.
While responsibility for the confusion, the lack of accountability and poor coordination of government agencies on these matters must be shared by the collective Cabinet, these missteps point to a failure of leadership.
After all, the fish rots from the head.