Rescue and recovery efforts are ongoing in the Abacos and Grand Bahama following the devastating passage of Hurricane Dorian over the northwestern portion of the Bahamas archipelagic chain. Packing unprecedented sustained winds of 300kmh (185mph), Hurricane Dorian made landfall on Elbow Cay in the Abacos chain during the late morning hours of 1 September as the strongest tropical system on record to ever hit the Bahamas.
The storm stayed in the greater area for the next 48 hours, wreaking destruction via winds and storm surge for an estimated 75,000 residents before finally moving northwards from the islands and eventually skirting the southeastern coast of the United States. Reports currently indicate that Dorian has resulted in a death toll of at least 30 individuals, with hundreds more still missing or unaccounted for; the toll is expected to rise considerably over the coming days as rescue crews eventually gain access to neighbourhoods and do residence-by-residence searches.
Hurricane Dorian’s passage and impact
In many ways, Dorian’s trajectory straight through the Abacos and Grand Bahama was the worst-case scenario for residents, as it combined severely destructive winds, heavy rainfall, and a storm surge of some 7m (23 feet) over islands whose maximum height is only around 9m (30 feet), and did so in an unusually drawn out manner, as the storm stalled over Grand Bahama while its steering currents collapsed. This combination of intensity and duration mixed with the islands’ low-lying topography is what allowed Dorian to achieve its breadth of destruction, with some 45 per cent of homes in Grand Bahamas and the Abacos estimated to have been severely damaged or destroyed.
Some 60 per cent of Grand Bahama alone – particularly areas along its northern shore but also parts of Freeport – was underwater following Dorian’s passage, reflecting the storm-surge destruction caused by the system’s stall. Of the areas directly in the storm’s path, current reports indicate that only the South Abaco district fared relatively well, as it was located the furthest from the passage of the storm’s eye. Central and North Abaco as well as East and West Grand Bahama, however, were essentially ground zero. Flooding and power losses were also reported on other islands such as New Providence and Bimini due to Dorian’s outer bands reaching there, but recovery efforts there are likely to take only a matter of days or weeks, as opposed to the months, if not years, required in Grand Bahama and the Abacos.
The Bahamas’ current situation
Because Dorian has only recently left Bahamian territory and allowed the weather to improve, the government is still assessing the extent of the damage. Initial estimates put the figure at USD7 billion, but that does not include infrastructure or vehicular losses. Indeed, flooding at both the Grand Bahama International Airport (FPO) and Leonard M Thompson International Airport (MHH) in Central Abaco has severely hampered relief efforts so far, with most rescues taking place either via watercraft (including jet skis) or helicopter, including many who have been evacuated to Nassau on New Providence; unconfirmed reports suggest that the smaller Treasure Cay International Airport (TCB) on North Abaco is receiving highly limited air traffic.
Food and infrastructural aid is currently being organised by the UN and the Bahamian government with logistical assistance from the US government, but the general inability to land any aircraft other than helicopters due to floodwaters has proven highly problematic, with only flyovers having been done in larger aircraft without landing. Harbours such as those in Freeport on Grand Bahama and Marsh Harbour in Central Abaco have also either been destroyed or else damaged such that they remain closed. Reports indicate that the main hospital on Grand Bahama has been rendered useless, while the main hospital for the Abacos is still inhabitable yet has essentially run out of resources.
Until both the airports and harbours are at least partially opened, relief efforts will remain in a holding pattern. As such, the prospect for a major breakdown in law and order remains high, with reports from the Abacos already indicating looting incidents taking place in Marsh Harbour. Food, water and medical provisions remain highly limited and are further complicated by a lack of basic infrastructure including near-total failures in electrical and telecommunications networks as well as severely compromised road networks.
The general expectation is that relief supplies may finally begin to arrive in earnest within the next 48 hours as clearing and clean-up efforts continue, but until such time, the security situation remains precarious and, indeed, in many places unknown. In addition to relief supplies, the national government may very well need to reinforce security forces on both the Abacos and Grand Bahama in order to provide the necessary security apparatus while many on the islands attempt to reconstruct their lives from essentially nothing.
The outlook following Hurricane Dorian
The recovery efforts in the Abacos and Grand Bahama will take a minimum of months, if not well over a year, in order for the islands to rebuild sufficiently to begin receiving a steady stream of tourists – the lifeblood of the Bahamian economy. There is serious concern over what the economic situation will now be on the islands, as reconstruction will undoubtedly provide some temporary jobs but the crash in tourism as well as the more general destruction of hotels, restaurants and vacation properties will result in significant job losses. This spike in unemployment is expected to only further exacerbate the more acute humanitarian crisis which has already begun as residents await relief supplies.
The response from both the UN and the Bahamian government has been encouraging, and has been aided by the fact that Dorian’s path cutting through the northwestern Bahamas was predicted well in advance, allowing for planning, and that the Bahamas has a strong track record of weathering storms. Perhaps more cynically, the response will also likely benefit from the fact that (so far) the Bahamas has been the only Western Hemisphere nation severely affected this year by a tropical system, as compared to years past such as 2017 when multiple island nations, overseas territories as well as parts of the continental US were ravaged by numerous high-intensity storms, and disaster relief efforts in the Atlantic Basin were stretched thin.
With this said, it is again important to stress how long and arduous the recovery process will be in Grand Bahama and the Abacos, and those visiting the islands for any reason over the coming months should carefully research their itineraries and adjust their expectations prior to embarkation, with particular attention paid to the current status of infrastructure and local security conditions.