Written by Kirk Semple, Frances Robles, Rachel Knowles and Elisabeth Malkin
In the hours and days after Hurricane Dorian tore through the Bahamas’ Abaco Islands, the first government rescuers many residents saw were American. Coast Guard helicopters cut through the sky to evacuate the sick and wounded.
The distribution of emergency supplies of food, water and medicine has been mostly coordinated by an ad hoc network of volunteers from Bahamian and American nonprofit groups. But Abacos residents say their own government, whose resources were largely wiped out, has been notably absent in the six days since the Category 5 storm struck and killed at least 43 people.
Also, the Bahamas and other small island nations work through a regional organization, the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, to coordinate emergency response, and their help is not always clearly visible to people struggling on the ground.
“It’s ridiculous. Ridiculous,” said Martin McCafferty, a contractor based here in Marsh Harbour, the biggest town on the Abaco Islands. “This is a catastrophe, and they should be here in numbers.”
Governments, large and small, often need several days to mobilize after a major disaster, especially when local responders fail to show up because their own homes have been demolished.
For example, after Hurricane Maria struck in 2017, Puerto Ricans waited several days for food to start flowing because air and seaports were closed. When the goods were finally sent in, the island lacked truck drivers to distribute them. Puerto Rico was left paralyzed.
But since Dorian carved a path of destruction across the Abacos and Grand Bahama islands this past week, residents say the seeming absence of the Bahamian government has been glaring. And when the roads between isolated settlements needed to be cleared of downed trees and power lines, the work was mostly done by ordinary citizens.
Foreign governments, mainly the United States and British, have a notable presence. That’s because a tiny country like the Bahamas — its population of 330,000 is roughly 1% of the United States’ — is easily overwhelmed by a catastrophe on the scale of Hurricane Dorian.
The Caribbean relief agency, made up of 18 countries, has been working behind the scenes on a response plan. It enlisted the assistance of foreign governments, the United Nations and aid organizations, said Elizabeth Riley, the organization’s deputy executive director.
“One country does not have sufficient assets,” she said. “We look to sister nations to provide them.”
Additionally, some aid is bypassing government distribution channels altogether, arriving on private planes and boats from people in South Florida and elsewhere who frequently visit the Bahamas to fish or vacation there. Cruise lines and airlines have also stepped in.
Glen Rolle, a Freeport resident, was one of a team of nearly 30 civilian volunteers who borrowed Jet Skis and tractors, fighting through raging winds and storm surges to pull the stranded people of Grand Bahama down from the roofs of their homes.
A firetruck went by and they flagged it down, Rolle said. They were told the crew could do nothing to help.
“We said, ‘Come on, man, what you all mean y’all can’t help? Y’all are supposed to be first responders,’” he said. “I just don’t understand. Where are our first responders?”
Since the storm, an increasing sense of desperation has taken over on the streets of Marsh Harbour. People have broken into stores and businesses, some to take food and critical supplies but others to thieve nonessential goods, including washing machines and truck tires.
In the absence of a strong, visible law-enforcement presence, some business owners took matters into their own hands, posting armed guards on their properties.
“Our armed forces, they fell down. They fell down on the job,” Rolle said. “They are here to protect and serve, but they weren’t up to the task.”
The National Emergency Management Agency, known as NEMA, said in a statement to the Times that the government was doing everything it could.
“Hurricane Dorian turned into a monster hurricane overnight,” it said. “We deployed security, food, water and other resources as quickly as was possible once the all clear was given so that first responders were not put at risk.
“We are continuing to deploy more resources to stabilize Abaco and Grand Bahama in the wake of one of the most powerful hurricanes ever in the Atlantic.”
A Bahamas defense force official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, said that while the Bahamian government was involved in the relief effort, appearances might be different, especially when the public sees only foreign helicopters. The defense force was not flying helicopters in the disaster zone for a simple reason, he said: It didn’t have any.
The US Coast Guard had evacuated 290 people by Saturday morning. Another agency from the US, Urban Search and Rescue Virginia Task Force 1 out of Fairfax, Virginia, sent 57 rescuers to find people who were trapped in debris. They arrived early Thursday with four dogs and 50,000 pounds of equipment such as saws and torches.
“We may be the first folks from a government agency this population has seen,” said John Morrison, the Virginia group’s spokesman.
Earlier in the week, once the storm had faded, a group of seven men in Treasure Cay, a settlement on Great Abaco Island, used chain saws and machetes to clear the road to Marsh Harbour. It took them four hours.
The government was nowhere to be seen, said Deangelis Burrows, 47, a building contractor who lives in Treasure Cay and was part of that volunteer crew.
He said that normally the government would immediately deploy crews to clear roads, and security forces to safeguard the population. But not this time, he said Saturday.
“I haven’t seen them,” he said. “I don’t know if they’re somewhere else on the island but they’re certainly not here. It’s unreal.”
The airport in Marsh Harbour has become a critical hub for incoming relief supplies and personnel and for people trying to flee. But the job of reopening the airport fell, at least in part, to an American nongovernment group, GSD.
Since then, the group’s members have been serving as the airfield’s air traffic controllers.
HeadKnowles, a Bahamian nongovernmental relief organization, is coordinating the flow of evacuees through the airport. Since Wednesday, the group has overseen the evacuation of at least 1,300 people, all by private plane, said Daylland Moxey, 27, who has been helping lead HeadKnowles’ effort at the airport.
Several police officers have been supervising the terminal entrance, and members of the defense force have been providing some security around the perimeter. But otherwise Bahamian government officials have been scarce.
Throughout the day, hundreds of refugees waited at the airport for a chance to score a seat on an outgoing plane.
Many were clustered inside the terminal, which was cast in semidarkness because of an islandwide blackout. Others were bunched up on the sidewalk outside, behind a security cordon, hoping to get a chance to move into the building and closer to a plane heading off the island.
Several private planes had come throughout the day, unloaded relief supplies and filled their seats with storm survivors, whisking them to Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas.
At least one large aircraft belonging to Bahamasair, a government-owned airline, had touched down, too. But it had taken only employees and their families.
Spotting a reporter walking through the terminal, several people took the opportunity to air their complaints.
“The government hasn’t sent one plane!” yelled Reynon Ferguson, 31, who had been waiting at the airport all day along with hundreds of others in the hope of getting a seat on an outgoing flight.
“Lousy government! Lousy prime minister!” Jerusha Williams shouted, referring to Hubert Minnis.
Another man, Delano Hart, 41, joined the bitter chorus.
“Private jets, private jets, private jets with four or five seats — and we have multitudes here!” he hollered.
Desperate people carrying backpacks and suitcases have also been swarming a dock on the harbor hoping to board boats to Nassau. On Thursday, some 15 private boats — ranging in size from small yachts to large ferries fitting several hundred — took refugees off the island. At least a half-dozen more private vessels, including a ferry packed with people and cars, shipped out with hundreds more evacuees Friday.
On Saturday, Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line said it brought 1,550 hurricane evacuees aboard the Grand Celebration humanitarian cruise ship, which sailed to West Palm Beach, Florida, from Grand Bahama.
The government presence at the port wasn’t totally invisible this past week.
A few police officers and members of the defense force have been stationed at the wharf trying to maintain a semblance of order as evacuees gathered each day. Two ships from the defense force were docked and were unloading relief supplies.
But the evacuation process has been ad hoc and chaotic, leaving residents to sift through uncertain information, separating rumor from fact.
“Nobody’s telling us when the boat going,” said Jimmy Mackey, 40, a builder, who stopped by the port Friday night looking for information about departing vessels. “They should have a government guy here, somebody being here telling you when the boat is leaving.
“But do you see anybody telling you anything?”