Op-Ed

Hurricane Dorian three years later

Today marks the third anniversary of Category 5 Hurricane Dorian hitting The Bahamas, notably the Abaco and Grand Bahama islands.

This storm will go down in the annals of Bahamian history as perhaps the greatest and deadliest hurricane to impact The Bahamas in the modern era. In 2004 and 2005, a series of three hurricanes were not considered major hurricanes when they passed near to or over The Bahamas (Frances and Jeanne in 2004 and Wilma in 2005). However, these three hurricanes woke up our consciousness to the significant impact and devastation of storms, especially on the island of Grand Bahama and, notably, the significant impact on the economy of Grand Bahama. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 cost The Bahamas $250 million in damages. Hurricane Matthew in 2016 cost The Bahamas $600 million in damages. These two figures from Hurricanes Andrew and Matthew were considered astronomically high during those respective years. That is until the mega-Dorian blew them out of the water with a total of over $3.4 billion in damages, which I am sure we will be paying for many years into the future.

The 20-ton elephant in the room called Hurricane Dorian proved that the significant vulnerabilities from hurricanes still plague us as a nation. Hurricane Dorian proved that we as a country still have a long way to go in educating the nation about the preparation, impact, dynamics, and susceptibilities of a major hurricane like Dorian. I refer to Dorian as the “perfect template storm” for several reasons. First, all the warnings went out well ahead of time. Second, we had several major press conferences pre-Dorian highlighting the dangers, dynamics, track, and impact of Hurricane Dorian by no one bigger or more important than our then-prime minister, Dr. Hubert Minnis, the highest authority figure in the land.

Third, I recalled watching the first storm-related press conference with the directors of The Bahamas Department of Meteorology and National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and others, closing with the prime minister himself. Minnis noted that he was 6 feet 1 inch tall and that Dorian’s storm surge would be at least 21 feet high. He said residents needed to take the storm seriously.

The then-North Abaco MP Darren Henfield took a team of individuals from various government ministries into the settlements and cays in Abaco to warn residents of the potential impact of the impending Hurricane Dorian.

In theory, this should have been a storm like Hurricane Michelle in 2001, with just some rain, some flooding, and some wind.

But sadly, it wasn’t the case. I interviewed most of the police officers that accompanied the then-minister on Abaco and they stated that about 90 to 95 percent of those individuals told them they were leaving and going to stay in one of the designated hurricane shelters or with family or friends.

One police officer stated that a lady personally told him she was leaving in about 20 to 30 minutes but, after the storm, she was one of the first bodies he recovered from The Mudd shantytown.

She did not listen to the prime minister, the sitting MP, government officials, the directors of The Bahamas Department of Meteorology, and NEMA.

Michael Pintard, the then-sitting minister of agriculture who, when Cabinet was briefed, should have been informed about the impact and dynamics of the impending powerful Category 5 Hurricane Dorian.

First of all, it is not my intention to embarrass anyone. Still, the point I am making is of critical importance if, God forbid, we are struck with another Category 5 hurricane like Dorian to help future potential victims avoid future dangers. During Dorian, Pintard sent out an urgent appeal by WhatsApp for immediate assistance because he was trapped in his house by flood waters. I am sure thousands of Bahamians saw where he, his wife, and his daughter were trapped on the second floor of his home as about 15 to 20 feet of flood water engulfed the first floor of his house. He and his family had to be rescued by jet ski operators. In fact, during his rescue on the jet skis, he and his family could have quickly died when the jet skis flipped over in the strong 185 mph hurricane force winds and rough floodwaters, and over 21 to 28 feet of storm surge.

Did this sort of heroic act in a hurricane happen before? Yes, it did; read on, and you will find several other notable and similar compelling cases of these courageous acts.

One was in Hurricane Wilma in 2005. When the then-minister of tourism, and MP for West End and Bimini, Obie Wilchcombe, learned that Hurricane Wilma would impact his constituents, he took it upon himself to go and warn those persons in low-lying areas to move to higher ground or a safer location two additional times after his initial visit.

Even then, some still stayed. But had it not been for the heroic efforts of Wilchcombe, more lives could have been lost in Hurricane Wilma.

Another notable example was as recent as Hurricane Matthew in 2016 when police officers rescued over 500 to 600 people under the leadership of then-Royal Bahamas Police Force (RBPF) Commissioner Mr. Ellison Greenslade and Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police Mr. Leon Bethel.

They made the tough but courageous decision to send officers into the hurricane-ravaged areas of South Beach during the peak of the storm. This brave directive was done against all laws, mandates, and rules of the RBPF and the country. Typically, residents would be warned before the storm that should they stay in vulnerable areas and encounter difficulties in their homes during the storm, no one would come to rescue them, but only after the storm’s passage when it is safe to do so. These courageous leaders and their senior executive team sent officers in dump trucks and backhoes to rescue those in need.

Had that drastic action not occurred, we could have had fatalities in Hurricane Matthew.

Instead, these heroic acts saved many lives.

My final example is that of Dr. Hubert Minnis during the passage of Hurricane Irma in 2017. Minnis urged residents on Ragged Island to evacuate ahead of the storm.

Had this not happened, there could have been fatalities on Ragged Island.

Therefore, thanks to Dorian, the proverbial silver lining behind the dark cloud is that we as a country now have a template storm to go into the future in this new era of climate change.

Still, it is up to us as a country to learn from and use this template storm called Hurricane Dorian. One glaring thing that this and many other storms have clearly shown us as a country is the critical need for mandatory evacuation laws. They are needed to compel people to move out of vulnerable areas in the event of a destructive but powerful hurricane heading our way, similar to laws in the United States, especially in Florida.

In his speech to Parliament on the impact of Hurricane Floyd, former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham stated that we as a country must consider enacting mandatory evacuation laws to compel people to move out of highly vulnerable areas that an impending storm will impact.

In 2016, after the passage of Hurricane Matthew, former Prime Minister Perry Christie made the same declaration in Parliament, as did Minnis. However, the natural but more fundamental question is, could we as a nation afford not to implement these laws? Today, millions have been spent on repairing and rebuilding schools, hospitals, and clinics; on search and rescue, food, clothing, medicine, staff deployment to Abaco and Grand Bahama, and on memorials.

Unfortunately, many of these exorbitant costs could have been avoided with a simple set of mandatory evacuation laws to prevent or even significantly reduce these costs and fatalities to the country and people of The Bahamas.

Bahamians, on the whole, in my opinion, do not give hurricanes the respect that they deserve.

They do little preparation before they strike, like stocking up on groceries, medical and household supplies, etc. In addition, they make little or no preparations for an impending storm by not evacuating a vulnerable area when ordered. Quite simply, they take a lackadaisical attitude toward hurricanes and don’t insure their homes if a major hurricane impacts them. That is because before Matthew, Irma, Joaquin, Dorian, and other recent storms, Bahamians had very little to go on as a template storm. Sadly, the only way most Bahamians will give hurricanes the respect they deserve is by experiencing a major hurricane. It is fair to say the powerful Category 5 Hurricane Dorian in 2019 changed that perception significantly.

It has to be, because hurricane preparedness begins with you!

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