In a natural disaster, a death toll is not merely a statistic for record keeping purposes or an incidental count of losses less important than counting the cost of immediate relief and restoration needs.
Obtaining and reporting an accurate death toll is critical for grieving families, and is an important component in establishing the severity of a disaster and developing response strategies for future events through the analysis of causes of death as established by medical examiners.
At present, authorities have put the official death toll from Hurricane Dorian at 61 with over 400 people missing on Abaco and Grand Bahama.
Almost immediately after the passage of Hurricane Dorian, storm victims, desperate relatives and the wider public expressed doubts about the death toll, insisting that it was being understated by the government, an accusation government ministers have repeatedly denied.
Pre-existing lack of trust in officials considered, the doubts principally arose from Abaconians and Grand Bahamians who would have had sight of multiple dead bodies in the hurricane’s aftermath, more bodies by their accounts, than what was being reported by the government.
It is a concern that has arisen in countries throughout the world in the aftermath of natural disasters for a variety of reasons, but in the case of The Bahamas, one of those reasons rests with lack of public information.
The detailed extent to which search and recovery efforts have been organized and executed has not been communicated to the public in a consistent and clear fashion.
As a result, grieving family members and the general public are in many ways uncertain of how and where human remains are being searched out, how remains are being recovered, where they were being stored and ultimately taken to and whether due care has been taken to preserve the integrity of remains during search efforts.
Where there is uncertainty, there is a higher potential for mistrust and suspicion.
Perspective questioned local and international authorities on the process of search and recovery efforts on Abaco and Grand Bahama in an effort to shed light on what is being done to locate the hundreds missing in Dorian’s aftermath.
Human remains detection — Grand Bahama
Members of the Peace River K9 Search and Rescue Association based in Englewood, Florida, travelled to Grand Bahama on September 28 to provide the Royal Bahamas Police Force with cadaver dog assistance in the search for human remains throughout east Grand Bahama and parts of Freeport.
Association President Michael Hadsell, in an interview with Perspective, disclosed that the group’s cadaver dogs located 15 sites for human remains on the island.
“McLeans Town is where we started,” Hadsell advised. “We were taken by the Bahamian police to that town and they had specific areas that they wanted us to check.
“We found 15 areas that the dogs alerted on and we marked the area of the dog alerts and then the Bahamian police were going to come back later with a backhoe and remove the piles so they could see if the remains were in them.”
Those unaccounted for on Grand Bahama were last seen in settlements including McLeans Town, High Rock and in the vicinity of Freeport known as “over the bridge”.
“We had about four alerts in McLeans Town; two by the south tower and then two by a blown out church just before you get into McLeans Town,” Hadsell recounted, “and then in High Rock we had about three alerts there where there is a rubble pile that stretches for about a half-mile or more and there are woods there that we also searched.”
According to research, cadaver dogs which are trained to detect only human remains can be up to 95 percent accurate in their detection and can smell remains up to 15 feet underground.
Among those reported missing from the McLeans Town area is the Thomas family: Philip Thomas Jr. and his three children, Philip, Remeille and Mateo, according to police.
Thomas’ wife, Barri, was the lone survivor of the family.
We contacted the officer in charge of the Grand Bahama district, Assistant Police Commissioner Samuel Butler, who confirmed Hadsell’s report on the alerts by the group’s search dogs but said no remains were found once subsequent searches with heavy equipment were carried out.
“We did have a joint mission along with the K9 representatives,” he said. “The areas were properly cleared by heavy duty machines and there were no remains found.
“We have one other area that we are working today (Saturday) which required a different type of machinery, more of an excavator type of equipment, and so far we have not recovered anything.”
There are 30 persons reported missing on Grand Bahama in the storm’s aftermath and nine confirmed deaths.
According to Hadsell, he was advised during follow up calls to the island that area residents, who were aware of what the team’s alert markings may have meant, had begun to get shovels and other tools of their own to attempt to search the debris piles for their missing loved ones.
Butler said he was not aware of any such activity.
Human remains detection — Abaco
According to NEMA Director Captain Stephen Russell, a “team concept” is being utilized in search and recovery efforts on Abaco where 52 are confirmed dead.
“The situation in Abaco is we have debris that is piled 30 to 40 feet high,” he pointed out. “I had a team come in from Boston that did an initial search just over a week ago where they discovered skeletal remains on their first sweep and they also identified 10 other sites where possible remains would be and they have marked out those areas for us.”
Russell indicated that the purpose of recent contracts issued for cleanup on Abaco is to clear debris that from his reports consists of bulk items including vehicles and 20ft and 40ft containers.
When questioned on the possibility that deceased victims could potentially be crushed or otherwise disarticulated by the use of heavy equipment in the cleanup process, Russell said a system has been implemented to attempt to address this.
“There is a need for certain types of equipment to get to the island to start the layered approach of moving things from the top of the piles and coming down until they can get down to the bottom,” he indicated.
“There is no way backhoes can push anything from the bottom until those items are brought down.
“We have a team concept,” Russell continued. “As the persons start to move various layers there are going to be spotters on the ground to make sure if skeletal remains or deceased persons are discovered, they would then bring in the police and the coroner to do their investigations. That is the master plan moving forward with Environmental Health and the Ministry of Public Works.”
Why would we lie?
It is accepted that the magnitude of Dorian’s destruction is beyond the scope of handling for government and for most Bahamians and residents just as it would be in other countries.
Search and recovery for human remains amidst tons of rubble and against the backdrop of unprecedented storm surge is new for our country and presents a learning curve we hope to never experience again.
But where government ministers would serve the public best is not to be on the defensive in the face of suspicion and accusations, but rather to consider where the lack of information has contributed to unease and mistrust.
Just as our government officials cannot be expected to have all the answers in this level of tragedy, survivors who have lost loved ones should be given all the more consideration and cannot be expected to understand search and recovery strategies in a way that can give them a level of appreciable comfort that their loved ones are as respected and valued by authorities in death as they ought to be in life.
Storm victims have a right to know why the kinds of heavy duty equipment needed for the type of search and recovery efforts at hand are only now being acquired and secured.
After all, if it were your family, would you be comfortable knowing your loved one might be buried beneath mounds of rubble 35 days after a storm? Should you not be expected to ask questions, to be anxious to find your loved one and to be going through the early stages of grief such as denial and anger that all human beings experience in different degrees?
We must appreciate that grieving relatives are no doubt questioning whether their loved ones could have been found alive if actions that were not taken, were taken.
It is not for any of us to call their hope or their feelings foolish or unreasonable.
It is rather for the authorities to make them and the nation aware of all that has been done and is currently being done to bring those who can be found, back to the ones who are grieving their disappearance and their loss.