Stabroek News, In the Diaspora
9 September 2019
When the Apocalypse is Now: Climate Crisis, Small Island Disasters and Migration in the Aftermath of Hurricane Dorian
Angelique V. Nixon
It has been just one unbearably long week since Hurricane Dorian, and the reports from the Northern Bahamas islands of Grand Bahama and Abaco are more horrific and catastrophic with each passing day. Both islands are being described as apocalyptic with near or total devastation and a rising death toll that is hard to fathom for such a small country. Many of the dead have not been counted yet because of limited storage and capacity. The place smells like death – recent reports from Abaco and Grand Bahama keep saying. Bahamians living abroad like myself have spent these past days in fear and panic waiting to hear from loved ones and families, mourning with our national siblings, watching in horror the rescue and recovery efforts, sharing information and correcting misinformation about our beloved archipelago.
The Northern Bahamas has just experienced one of the most catastrophic hurricanes on record. The devastation is unimaginable, with thousands of homes destroyed and thousands of people displaced on both islands. The population of Abaco and Grand Bahama – nearly 70,000 people or more – have been directly impacted. Too many people have lost almost everything, homes entirely or mostly destroyed, loved ones taken by the storm surge, survivors traumatised and waiting for relief. Communication is severely limited. Electricity is out and will be for a long time. Drinking water is running out. Running water is reported to be contaminated. The longer people wait to get relief, the greater chance the death toll will rise even more, the greater toll on people’s physical, emotional and mental health. This is the reality. This is what I’m hearing from friends, family and community organisers on the ground. This is what local and international journalists are reporting.
In the aftermath of the hurricane, both islands face a humanitarian crisis as people wait for rescue and relief efforts. Too many people have no drinking water, food, clothing, or shelter – basic needs. Too many people are traumatised, re-counting the stories of watching loved ones being pulled away by the tidal surge or drowning in attempts to get out of flooding homes and shelters. The stories are beyond heart-breaking and filled with apocalyptic horror – as people await rescue and relief, they share how they survived and how they watched others perish. It is almost too much, but we must bear witness and share in this grief and sorrow so that healing and recovery are possible. This is a small island disaster, but there is nothing small about it.
We must understand that the most vulnerable or marginalised communities before the disaster (poor and working class folks, persons living with disabilities and severe health conditions, elderly, migrants, and those caring for others) will be the most in need in the aftermath. This is how disasters work. They are not the great equalizer as some say. All they do is unearth and exacerbate existing inequalities and vulnerabilities. We have seen this again and again – from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to Superstorm Sandy in the Northeast US, and the continued failed response and relief for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. The most vulnerable are made more vulnerable.
While relief efforts are being mobilised, donations and funds are being collected from across the region and world, and disaster agencies are operating, there remain disparities in access to relief and rescue. Across Grand Bahama - with the second largest population in the country, over 50,000 people, from the city of Freeport to settlements like High Rock – there is widespread devastation. People of Grand Bahama have been saying they feel ignored and forgotten in relief efforts, days after the storm, as survivors searched for loved ones, led their own rescue operations, as people who lost less help those who have lost everything.
My elder aunt and uncle, and a family friend who is disabled, survived the hurricane and flooding in a one-story concrete house, far from the coast, inland in Freeport, Grand Bahama. They watched in fear as the flood waters rose into the yard, then up into their home, and sat waist deep in those waters for many terrifying hours. Many areas of Freeport flooded with the storm surge and hours of hurricane rain. While their house is still standing, most of their belongings are damaged or destroyed. They say they are just happy and blessed to be alive. My cousin says they are both traumatised as so many people in Grand Bahama. They are just one story of hundreds of families struggling in the aftermath. Another family member in Freeport says many people who have means (a passport, US visa, and/or family/connections in Florida) are leaving – two cruise ships from Freeport to West Palm Beach have already left.
Entire settlements in Abaco – from the largest town of Marsh Harbour to the almost forgotten shanty town of Haitian migrants and Haitian Bahamians called The Mudd and Pigeon Peas (with an estimated population of 2,600) – have been destroyed. Haitian migrants and Haitian Bahamians are one of the most vulnerable and marginalised communities in The Bahamas, too often ignored and treated inhumanely by the state and Bahamians generally. It is likely that many undocumented Haitian migrants in this community in Abaco might have been fearful to seek shelter in the storm even with the mandatory evacuation. It is likely that we may never know for sure how many in this community lost their lives. Few journalists and news stories have discussed this issue as it is a sensitive one and political issue. Haitian migrants have escaped one set of unliveable conditions, only to find themselves facing another. According to news reports, Haitian activists in Miami have called upon the Prime Minister of The Bahamas to stop deportations so that Haitian migrants can access relief and help without fear.
Hurricane Dorian is the most powerful storm to hit the Northern Bahamas ever – with 185 mph winds, 220 mph gusts and 20 feet tidal surges. It was/is unimaginable. The slow moving and massive storm ripped through the Abaco islands and then sat stationary over Grand Bahama for more the 40 hours. There is no way to prepare fully for this. Even for a country that is accustomed to hurricanes, a country that has strict building codes, for people who know storms and plan for hurricanes every season (for generations and increasingly in the past decade of more frequent and intense storms), nothing could prepare us for this and its aftermath. The Bahamas is not prepared. Neither are any of our island-nations and countries in this vulnerable region. And neither are most countries really prepared for this kind of disaster – a disaster fueled by climate change, injustice and inequality. This is the apocalypse now of climate crisis. In the past decade, we have witnessed and experienced the strength, intensity and frequency of hurricanes – fueled by climate change, season after season – not only in The Bahamas but across the Caribbean region. We have been on the front lines of climate change for decades. This is climate crisis – as Erica Moiah James so beautifully argues in her September 4 New York Times Op-Ed “Hurricane Dorian Makes Bahamians the Latest Climate-Crisis Victims”.
This is our worst fear, what we’ve already experienced and imagined as bearing the brunt of climate change. In my lifetime, I have seen the impact of rising sea levels, erosion of coastlines, destruction of mangroves and unsustainable, destructive tourism development in The Bahamas. Across the region, we see this again and again, alongside stronger hurricanes, severe weather, higher temperatures, coral reefs and mangroves dying - mangroves that ought to protect the coast during storms. This has been the reality of climate change for decades. And now we have reached another extreme – with fires raging in the Amazon and across Sub-Saharan Africa, carbon levels higher than predicted, melting of polar ice caps, hotter summers, colder winters, mass extinctions in the animal kingdom, bleaching of coral reefs, and on and on. This is climate crisis. And the Caribbean is one of the most vulnerable regions with small island countries and low-lying coasts, much like the Pacific Islands.
It is important to understand the geography and land/sea-scape of The Bahamas to really grasp how challenging relief efforts are and the long road to recovery. The country needs all the help that the Caribbean region, civil society organisations, relief agencies, private sector and others are offering. The Bahamas is more sea than land with over 700 islands and cays stretching right above Cuba and Haiti north to Florida. Grand Bahama and Abaco are larger islands than the city-capital island of Nassau, New Providence, which is the economic centre, has the largest population and hence more resources. With a total population of close to 400,000 people and the vulnerability of low lying islands and rising sea levels, The Bahamas is in no way prepared for such a widespread disaster on two of the islands with the largest populations (outside of Nassau). The government doesn’t have enough emergency equipment or responders to handle this catastrophic situation – on two islands where mass destruction of airports, hospitals, businesses, government offices, and entire communities left few options for immediate help. Both islands have had to wait in terror for help to arrive from elsewhere – from the capital New Providence. This is perhaps why the Bahamian government is relying so heavily on the private sector, the Caribbean Emergency Disaster Agency, U.S. Coast Guard, British Royal Navy, wealthy citizens, cruise ships, airlines and others with resources like planes and helicopters (necessary for helping with rescue and evacuations). Mass evacuations must happen especially in Abaco where reports suggest that it will take years to rebuild. Mass migrations are inevitable from both islands.
In our Caribbean, this is the latest instantiation of what it means to be on the frontline of climate change and small island disasters. Devastation and mass migration have already happened because of widespread disasters after hurricanes and earthquakes – Puerto Rico, Haiti, Dominica, Barbuda, Virgin Islands, St. Martin, and on and on. So we must plan for this new future and figure out how to best prepare, support each other. Given the unimaginable scale of devastation at this start of the 2019 hurricane season, we should be thinking about what will happen when climate crisis reaches critical mass. Will this be the new norm? What happens when we all become climate refugees? What do we need to do, across our region, to challenge an ongoing logic of development that turns our spaces of living into death zones?
But for now in this aftermath, I am thinking most of those suffering now, those most vulnerable, and helping my family as much as I can. I am doing what I can here in Trinidad through a “Relief Drive for The Bahamas” supporting three grassroots women-led organisations on the ground that are getting help to those most in need and those most vulnerable in this disaster – Lend A Hand Bahamas (https://www.lendahandbahamas.org/), Equality Bahamas (Facebook @equality242), and Human Rights Bahamas (Facebook @gbhra242). The core organisers here in Trinidad are UWI Institute for Gender and Development Studies (IGDS), Coalition-Against Domestic Violence, Network of NGOs of T&T for the Advancement of Women, and the Emancipation Support Committee TT (ESCTT). We have come together to collect relief items – calling for basic necessities – adult and baby hygiene products, including soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, female sanitary items, adult and baby diapers, baby formula and food, cleansing wipes, and non-perishable foods can be dropped off at any of those organisations’ headquarters. (For those in Trinidad who want to support, contact me via what’s app 868-732-3543 for more information.) We are supporting grassroots organisations on the ground because we trust they will get relief to those most in need as quickly as possible.
I urge us all in the Caribbean to move with empathy and care in this long road to recovery because we are in this together. I ask for us to think about how we call upon each other, our leaders, governments, policy makers, agencies, private sector, civil society to be visionary and transformational leaders, to be forward thinking, to demand better, ethical and sustainable development for our Caribbean future.
BIO - Angelique V. Nixon is a Bahamas-born, Trinidad-based writer, artist, and scholar-activist. She is a Lecturer at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. She is author of Resisting Paradise: Tourism, Diaspora, and Sexuality in Caribbean Culture and an art and poetry chapbook Saltwater Healing – A Myth Memoir and Poems.