Foreign military efforts, remote assessments, and mass evacuations have dominated the first week of relief operations in the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian pulled away from the island nation on 3 September.
As regional and international aid efforts continue to reach the affected islands, the official death toll stands at 50, but thousands of people could be missing, according to local media reports.
Authorities are now talking of ”search-and-recovery” operations as the prospect of search-and-rescue operations finding any new survivors 10 days after Dorian barrelled in as a Category 5 hurricane becomes more and more unlikely.
Everyone who lived on the hardest-hit islands of Grand Bahama and Abaco – about 76,000 people – is affected. Housing, infrastructure, and basic services have either been destroyed, damaged, or disrupted.
As much as 90 percent of Abaco has been damaged. The mostly-Haitian shantytowns of The Mudd and Pigeon Peas were flattened. Many of the estimated 5,000 Haitians on Abaco had been living and working in the Bahamas for years, many of them undocumented.
Here’s a stock-take of response operations so far.
Managing the displacement
Many survivors have had to move. As few as 4,000 people remain on Abaco, from a population of about 17,000 before the hurricane struck, according to local authorities.
About 4,800 people have been evacuated from Abaco or Grand Bahama to the Bahamian capital, Nassau, on relatively unaffected New Providence island. Most found housing with friends and family, but at last count 1,650 were still in public buildings designated as shelters.
Hands-on provision of daily food, accommodation, basic services, and other essentials will be a continuing need for those in the shelters, while systems of support for other displaced people dispersed among the wider population will also be required.
Some survivors have made arrangements to connect with relatives and friends in the United States – at least 1,500 people arrived over the weekend in Palm Beach, Florida after being evacuated on the Grand Celebration cruise ship.
A spokesperson for the UN’s migration agency, IOM, told the New Humanitarian that no special immigration arrangements had been made with the United States or other Caribbean states.
News reports said US immigration authorities had given conflicting signals about admitting Bahamians on an emergency basis, but President Donald Trump has so far ruled out lifting the normal visa requirements for people from the Bahamas.
Coordinating the coordinators
A range of operators have rushed in, some with little or no prior experience in the country. Altogether, at least 80 groups and institutions are involved in the response, according to USAID, the US government aid agency.
The Bahamas’ National Emergency Management Authority (NEMA) has the lead role in setting priorities and coordinating the response. It is backed up by teams from the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Authority (CDEMA), a regional body, as well as by the UN’s emergency aid coordination arm, OCHA.
NEMA hosts an operations centre in Nassau, but has announced that a satellite office staffed by UN officials, also in the Bahamian capital, will cater to NGOs and other aid groups.
Acknowledging the demands of coordinating dozens of response agencies and institutions (up to 150 people have attended meetings at NEMA), OCHA has been tasked with handling NGO coordination and providing a “CIV-MIL” interface with military units and logistics operators as well as other coordination support.
There is a competitive PR opportunity in sudden-onset disaster response. One aid worker familiar with the operation, speaking on condition of anonymity to conserve professional relations, said “everyone’s trying to get that first tweet out, saying ‘we’re on the ground’”.
Few aid operations have been able to deploy staff to the affected islands, while office and accommodation space is at a premium in Nassau.
CDEMA made it clear in the hurricane response of 2017 that it would prefer the UN to take a more supportive role. This time around, the UN appears to have been careful to leave space for the regional body.
Assessing needs and priorities
Satellite imagery and overflights have given a preliminary view and outlines of the physical damage and flooded areas.
Overflights and updates from rescue operations have been able to reach most areas and gauge some critical needs.
Aid operations include re-establishing communications in affected areas. However, methodical on-the-ground assessments that could assign priorities and provide more detailed requirements and cost estimates have only just begun.
A Rapid Needs Assessment Team, organised by CDEMA, was only able to reach most affected areas at the weekend, as landing at affected airports had not been possible, according to aid workers interviewed by TNH.
This CDEMA-run team, which includes civil servants from Caribbean nations as well as some UN and donor staff, should soon report on priority needs. That team’s findings, along with input from smaller field visits, should form the basis for estimates of funding needs in the medium term.
Making sense of all the raw material from assessments and remote-sensing by satellite and high-flying aircraft requires a lot of work. A senior NGO official familiar with the operation, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, said the “analysis is developing but not sufficient yet”, and that ground-truthing by direct observation would be key.
Among a range of document- and data-sharing networks that have sprung up, a UN-led inter-agency team called the Assessment and Analysis Cell has been activated.
Specific post-disaster needs, according to OCHA, will include keeping a close eye on clean water and risks of water-borne disease as well as shelter, debris removal, environmental contamination, and restoration of electrical supplies.
Broadening the response
As is typical in disaster response, neighbours, friends, family, and local institutions have been the first responders in Bahamas. The Red Cross, local boat operators, pilots, jet-ski owners and other volunteers have rescued, evacuated, dropped supplies, and shipped cargo.
Heavy-duty response capacity has come from the United States, including Navy and Coast Guard helicopters. A British naval ship in the region, RFA Mounts Bay, was also able to provide logistical capacity and deliver emergency supplies.
To maintain security, police and military numbers are being boosted by deployments from Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.
One unusual contributor has been the Royal Caribbean Cruises Line, which has committed to providing at least 10,000 meals daily, prepared on board its cruise ships moored offshore or docked at Nassau.
Another hot meal operation has been launched by World Central Kitchen – fronted by TV chef José Andrés. It says it can provide 20,000 meals a day.
Acknowledging the private sector’s contribution in providing food, which is meeting most of the short-term needs, the UN World Food Programme said on 10 September that it would be concentrating its efforts on logistics and telecommunications.
Funding the relief effort
Other notable contributions include an initial $500,000 in contingency funds from the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Pledges from donor countries and neighbours so far amount to about $8 million, according to data provided by OCHA. The US government has pledged about $2.6 million to the Bahamas Red Cross and a further $1 million to WFP. Crowd-funding has picked up: funding broker GlobalGiving has raised about half of a target of $2 million, boosted by a partnership with Facebook.
It’s likely that CDEMA and/or the UN will soon propose a short-term consolidated response plan with an associated appeal for funds. In the meantime, the Red Cross has appealed for about $3.2 million, the World Health Organization for $3.5 million.
As a middle-income country, the Bahamas is technically not eligible for Official Development Assistance (ODA) funding. This may hold back some donors but is unlikely to prove critical. What it does mean, however, is that donor nations – including Britain and the United States – will not be able to count the expenditure against their official aid spending targets.
Right now, we’re working with contributors on the ground in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries to tell the stories of people enduring and responding to a rapidly evolving humanitarian crisis.
We’re documenting the threats to humanitarian response in the country and providing a platform for those bearing the brunt of the invasion. Our goal is to bring you the truth at a time when disinformation is rampant.
But while much of the world’s focus may be on Ukraine, we are continuing our reporting on myriad other humanitarian disasters – from Haiti to the Sahel to Afghanistan to Myanmar. We’ve been covering humanitarian crises for more than 25 years, and our journalism has always been free, accessible for all, and – most importantly – balanced.
You can support our journalism from just $5 a month, and every contribution will go towards our mission.