Hurricane Dorian, a powerful category 5 storm with winds of up to 295kmph and accompanying heavy rains and a powerful sea surge has devastated the Bahama islands of Grand Bahama, Abaco and nearby cays.
The hurricane first tore through Abaco on 1 September killing five people and causing serious injuries and extensive damage before stalling over Grand Bahama on 2 and 3 September, then gradually moving northwards at about 1mph.
Reports said that 70% of homes in Grand Bahama were underwater and at least 30 people and possibly very many more may have died. Large numbers remain missing. The Bahamas Deputy Prime Minister, Peter Turnquest, told the media “we anticipate tremendous social and economic dislocation and disruption in the short term. We have had catastrophic damage to both the public and private infrastructure that will take hundreds of millions, if not billions, to fund recovery and reconstruction. He also said that the mental health of those who had endured the storm was a priority concern of the government.
Separately a Red Cross spokesman, Matthew Cochrane, said more than 13,000 houses, or about 45% of the homes in Grand Bahama and Abaco, were believed to have been severely damaged or destroyed. UN officials said more than 60,000 people needed food, and the Red Cross said some 62,000 needed clean drinking water.
The Government has said that the Island of Great Abaco is virtually uninhabitable, with bodies piled up, no water, power or food, and militias formed to prevent looting. It also said that the storm brought up to 35in (89cm) of rain to the two islands, leaving vast areas flooded. An initial assessment by the World Food Programme indicated that about 60,000 people may be in need of food relief. All airports are now open, including those in the effected islands, to facilitate disaster relief efforts and evacuations.*
The recovery costs and damage to The Bahamas economy is expected to be considerable. The country has a zoned insurance scheme with the CCRIF SPC (formerly Caribbean Catastrophic Risk Insurance Facility) and is expected to have to utilise a US$100m IDB loan arrangement it had sought previously to address possible natural disasters. However, the damage could run into billions of dollars according to government ministers.
Reports indicate that the destruction caused could greatly affect the country’s debt levels. Having just recorded a 46% year-on-year debt reduction to US$222.4m or 1.7% of GDP, the lowest in a decade, Government expects this to now reverse making it difficult to reach its intended 50% debt-to-GDP ratio.
The country’s Minister of Tourism and Aviation, Dionisio D’Aguilar, has said that he now expects the record high number of tourist arrivals The Bahamas had been experiencing to move “significantly” in the opposite direction. Speaking to the media, he said that the centre of the country’s tourism, New Providence, remained unscathed, but the Ministry of Tourism would have to put together campaigns explaining that while Grand Bahama and Abaco might have been devastated The Bahamas is open for business. Speaking about Grand Bahama and Abaco, he said that there had been catastrophic damage to infrastructure, hotels and visitor facilities. A significant decrease in foreign visitors’ numbers was therefore to be expected. He also said that about 20,000 cruise passengers were redirected elsewhere adding to the economic hit damage caused by the Hurricane.
Other reports from the Bahamas indicate that Nassau, Paradise Island, and other parts of the Bahamas escaped major damage and that most hotels remain open. Elsewhere in the region Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the Eastern Caribbean quickly returned to normal following the passage as what originally was Tropical Storm Dorian passed to their east.
In a statement on behalf of CARICOM, St Lucia’s Prime Minister, Allen Chastenet, said that the region was ready to give whatever assistance is required to deal with the effects of the tragedy. He also noted that it was to be “fervently hoped” that the severe impact of Dorian would cause CARICOM Heads of Government to give new impetus to considering options for financing the construction of resilience to the effects of climate change, including the establishment of a resilience foundation. He said also that the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) will assist the Bahamas Government in assessing the situation and facilitating the provision of immediate relief.
The US Coastguard and the British naval fleet auxiliary, Mounts Bay, which has been on station in the Caribbean since June, are providing immediate assistance.
The path forward for The Bahamas may remain unclear for some time. Past experience is indicative of the long and difficult process that awaits Abaco and Grand Bahama.
Grand Bahama’s economy had steadily grown since its redevelopment began in 1955. By the 1990s the island was considered The Bahamas’s industrial hub in which pharmaceutical firms, engineering companies and chemical processing plants, among others, were being built, facilitated by the free economic zone established by the Hawksbill Creek Agreement and the privately-owned Grand Bahama Port Authority.
The commercial dynamism that had increasingly lifted standards of living and drawn Bahamian talent as well as investment to the island was brought to a halt in the aftermath of hurricanes Francis, Jean and Wilma which hit Grand Bahama in the space of two years from 2004 to 2005.
Now, just as efforts to reinvigorate the island’s economy appeared to be bearing fruit with notable growth in the technology sector, and multimillion-dollar port investments set to improve Grand Bahama’s tourism product, Dorian has caused what the government estimates will be billions in damages.
As for Abaco, a key location for tourism and fishing, the Prime Minister is quoted by NPR as saying that it is “decimated”.
Major investors such as Disney and Royal Caribbean have offered support by providing emergency supplies and food. Local inhabitants and the diaspora have actively made and called for donations to support efforts by the Red Cross and other initiatives involved in disaster relief.
The government must now ensure that families are reunited, and resettlement is carried out speedily. Soon, a reconstruction programme will need to be initiated.
The Bahamas is now faced with the difficult task of spreading already stretched human and financial resources, particularly in the health and education sectors, to address new challenges and to maintain the status quo in the islands that have not been affected by hurricane Dorian. Rachel Collie
*This article has been modified to reflect the opening of various airports for rescue operations. This article previously read: “However, the only international airport on the island of Grand Bahama was devastated and cannot serve as a staging ground for medical evacuations or emergency aid deliveries.”
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