One of the more disturbing developments in the government’s response to Hurricane Dorian is the significant discrepancies emanating from the Cabinet of The Bahamas on the number of people missing in the aftermath of the storm.
The count of missing persons is not an incidental statistic.
The information that substantiates this figure is the fundamental guide for search, rescue and recovery, because officials must be guided by reports of who is missing in order to formulate where to focus search efforts and how to craft rescue and recovery missions.
And this information guides police in their investigations into the whereabouts of missing persons in the storm’s aftermath.
That three ministers inclusive of the prime minister can, over a two-week period, give the nation figures that differ by hundreds of missing people, speaks to an apparent lack of cooperation among various agencies charged with handling this critical process.
It also strikes at the heart of the government’s credibility on the reporting of the missing and the dead in Dorian’s aftermath.
On September 27, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis in his address to the United Nations General Assembly reported that 600 people were missing in Dorian’s aftermath.
Five days later, on October 2, Minnis advised Parliament that the number of missing was 424, a difference of 176 people. Though the prime minister gave the figure of 424 while on his feet, his communication which was distributed to parliamentarians, the press and the public had the figure of “approximately 600”.
Shortly after the prime minister’s communication, a press release from Bahamas Information Services (BIS) was issued quoting Social Services Minister Frankie Campbell as saying, “We are just under 800 persons who remain unaccounted for and even that number is likely to be reduced with further cross-checking.”
Social services is charged with the task of collecting the names of missing persons as provided to them by storm evacuees registered at shelters on New Providence. From there, it cross-checks shelter lists to assist in reconnecting family members.
Within a single day, the figures of “approximately 600”, 424 and “under 800” were provided to the public.
What accounts for the difference of 176 missing people in the prime minister’s figures between September 27 and October 2?
In order for the number of missing to decrease, a missing person has to be found either alive or dead.
Within that time period the death toll had only risen by two, according to the Royal Bahamas Police Force. So are we to assume that 174 others were found alive within that five-day period?
A week later, on October 9, Campbell advised Parliament during debate on proposed amendments to the Disaster Preparedness and Response Act that “to date, the number of persons still missing or unaccounted for is 1,003 in Abaco and 205 in Grand Bahama” — a total of 1,208 people.
According to a report by the Tribune the following day, the Ministry of Social Services was set to publish a list of its 1,208 missing people but pulled the ad “amid confusion about the correct figures”.
In that report, National Security Minister Marvin Dames was quoted as providing yet a new figure for the number of missing post-Dorian — 282, adding that official missing persons lists must come from the police.
So within a two-week period between September 27 and October 10, three ministers of the same Cabinet gave three vastly differing figures of the number of missing: 424, 1,208 and 282.
There are important aspects to this that must be highlighted.
It is not unreasonable to expect that a figure provided by social services might be higher than that given by police, since most of the shelter evacuees on New Providence are said to be Haitian nationals who, particularly under the present climate, are not likely to go to the police to report their loved ones missing whether or not the individual making the report has legal status.
This considered, in the BIS press release Campbell is quoted as saying he expected the figure of “under 800” to decrease even further after cross-checking, but the next figure given by the minister was an increase to 1,208.
Figures tabulated by social services had been on a steady decrease up to October 2, so how did the figure jump by over 400 in the following week’s report by the minister?
When the prime minister gave his figure of 424 missing people, he did not indicate which agency provided it.
But if just one week later his minister with responsibility for the police — the investigating arm of the government’s Dorian response — is reporting a figure that is 142 people fewer than what the prime minister reported, all while no announcements being made of scores of bodies or survivors found, all reasonable people must question what is going on here.
Last Tuesday, Perspective put the following questions to Dames:
1) Has social services been working with police in its process of locating persons listed as missing or was social services working independent of police?
2) Regarding your statement last week to the Tribune on the listing of missing persons to be published by social services and the difference in its figures from that of the police, wouldn’t the publishing of that list have potentially been able to assist police in its search for those it has listed as missing?
3) The Tribune quoted you as saying there are 20 persons missing on Grand Bahama but police on Grand Bahama say there are 30 missing. Can you explain the difference?
4) You are quoted by the Tribune last week as saying 282 are missing. Just days prior the prime minister reported that 424 are missing. The prime minister’s number is presumably from NEMA (the National Emergency Management Agency) which posted that figure days earlier. Is NEMA working separately from the police in its publishing of the number of missing persons?
5) If NEMA and the police are working together, what accounts for the difference between your figure and the prime minister’s figure from NEMA, particularly since the body count has not increased by the difference in both figures?
To our questions, Dames replied that he “will follow up later in the day”. But up to press time, no answers have been provided.
Search for closure continues on Grand Bahama
Police on Grand Bahama meantime say they remain committed to the search and recovery of those reported missing on the island.
The families of two of the island’s missing storm victims told Perspective they believe the two bodies found last Wednesday and Thursday are those of their loved ones.
In our interview at Police Headquarters in Freeport last Friday with Superintendent Brian Rolle, head of the island’s Central Detective Unit, he revealed that the remains found in the East End settlement of Rocky Creek last Wednesday were that of a child, and the remains located on Barbary Beach in Freeport the following day were that of an adult female.
Rolle was part of a police-sponsored event designed to bring relatives of the missing together for the latest information on search efforts and to receive encouragement from guest speakers.
Prior to the start of the event, Philip Thomas Sr., whose oldest son and his three grandchildren are missing from the McLeans Town settlement, said, “I think they found a family member just two days ago, one of the kids.”
Howard Armstrong, whose wife Catherine was last seen in the “over the bridge” district in Freeport, is fairly certain his wife was found.
“They found another body, but they wouldn’t talk to me on the phone, they just told me to come here,” he informed. “I’m pretty sure it was her they found because they found her near our area.”
As the Thomas and Armstrong families process the latest turn of events, Donika Munnings, whose six-year-old son Omarion, along with her mother, brother, aunts and cousins remain missing, is holding onto hope.
“It is rough,” she said, “We just have to keep praying and asking God for strength.”
In our discussions with family members, they all indicated that they had not been receiving information on search and recovery efforts on the island.
When questioned on this, Rolle explained that the process of information sharing has its share of challenges that police have been working to address.
“There is a difficulty for us on many occasions to reach some of the family members to keep them up to date, and secondly, while we are out there we do not want to alert persons when there is nothing substantial to provide,” he pointed out.
A Royal Bahamas Police Force GB Facebook group has been created to assist in information sharing on ongoing search and recovery activities.
“The commitment to try to bring these persons back to their loved ones is still ongoing,” he affirmed. “Bahamians get a tendency right after something happens to just let it drift away but I am proud to say that with the team I have, that is not the case.
“They follow every lead and it is difficult sometimes to communicate that to every individual, but I hope the message that they heard today is that their loved one has not been forgotten.”
Police search teams, according to Rolle, were successful in last week’s discoveries through the process of following the debris field left in Dorian’s wake which in some cases is many feet high, and by following the leads of residents.
Perspective recently spoke with President of the Florida-based Peace River K9 Association Michael Hadsell, whose team traveled to Grand Bahama last month to provide cadaver dog assistance in the search for human remains.
According to Rolle, a subsequent search of 19 alerts by the team’s dogs turned up the remains of dead animals, but no human remains.
When questioned on whether the use of cadaver dogs would be utilized again, Rolle acknowledged the possibility.
“The two days that the team was here probably were not enough,” Rolle surmised. “We had to rush to places within the time they were here to check where the missing persons’ homes may have been as opposed to searching debris fields where they may have drifted to.
“Since we are starting to search those debris fields now, maybe it would be a good idea for us to bring them back in and hopefully if we do again, then we can let them stay with us for more than two days.”