The numbers of fatalities and of displaced and missing persons fluctuate following natural disasters, sometimes dramatically.
Such has been the case in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian’s devastating blows to Grand Bahama and Abaco and its cays on the 1-2 of September.
Thousands of residents from Grand Bahama and Abaco sought refuge on islands unaffected by Dorian – principally on New Providence but also in Eleuthera, Spanish Wells and Andros. Several thousand sought shelter internationally in Florida and other southern American states and even as far away as Canada. In the rush to safety, many lost contact with family members and neighbors leading to large numbers of persons being reported to the authorities as missing.
Efforts to account for the whereabouts and condition of the populations of Abaco and its cays, and of Grand Bahama in the days following the storm, were chaotic. It remains unclear today which government agency holds primary responsibility for this critically important function: whether NEMA, the Ministry of Social Services or the police.
In the week following, the hurricane reports indicated that as many as 6,000 people were unaccounted for. Then, as dispersed family members and relatives contacted each other, NEMA reduced the number of missing to 2,500 and then to 1,300 by mid-September.
When the prime minister addressed the United Nations on September 27, he informed the organization that some 600 persons were still unaccounted for.
NEMA placed the number at 424 at the beginning of October only to be contradicted by the Minister for Social Services, Frankie Campbell, who raised the number of the missing to 1,208 in a report to the House of Assembly on October 9. That number was refuted by the minister of national security, Marvin Dames, who revealed that the police had put the number of missing persons at 282. No further attempt has been made to reconcile these inexplicable differences.
It is anyone’s guess what the true number of persons missing or presumed dead is, particularly as the government has yet to release a list of the names and addresses of those known to have perished as a result of the storm or a list of those who remain unaccounted for.
Several days after the passage of the storm, authorities informed the public that the death toll from the storm had increased from five to 45; but that the number was expected to grow.
The official death count has ticked upward in the eight weeks since Dorian’s passage. By October 4, the official death toll had risen to 61 and now stands at 67.
Recovery of human remains is progressing slowly, and the vast majority of those recovered remain unidentified.
The minister of health, Dr. Duane Sands, gave assurances that autopsies had been conducted on all unidentified deceased persons recovered after the storm and that DNA samples were being preserved. We understand that some 45 autopsies have been completed on fatalities from the hurricane.
On Tuesday, the minister revealed that he is not pleased with his ministry’s information on autopsies. He gave no indication of the reasons for his dissatisfaction.
Families with missing members are also unhappy. They are not satisfied that the government is moving diligently and continuously to identify recovered remains which dwell in cold storage. Nor are they satisfied with the attention being given to locating the remains of those still missing and presumed dead.
We had earlier suggested that the publication of the list of persons reported missing together with their place of residence pre-Dorian would instill greater public confidence in the process. Such a list would also permit U.S. and Canadian authorities to verify whether any individual listed as missing in The Bahamas entered their territories as a storm refugee.
Instead, the government continues to surround the recovery of human remains and the list of the missing in secrecy.
Indeed, a decision is yet to be taken on where the unidentified dead are to be interred.