It's been 12 days since Hurricane Dorian struck the islands of Great Abaco and Grand Bahama, reducing entire neighborhoods to rubble. More than a thousand people have already left the Bahamas for Florida, and about 2,500 on the islands were still considered missing as of Wednesday. An untold number remain in need of emergency assistance.
International aid arrived in the Bahamas soon after the disaster but was slow to reach parts of the affected islands. The hurricane, which was a Category 5 storm when it made landfall, flooded Grand Bahama's major airport. The airspace over the Abacos and Grand Bahama during the next few days buzzed with helicopters running search-and-rescue missions, so limited landing-strip space was jammed. On Great Abaco, evacuations of Bahamians from the storm-wrecked town of Marsh Harbour are ongoing.
In this chaos, aid organizations have been forced to wait. Even now, as communities on Grand Bahama and evacuees on Nassau begin to settle, providing aid has proved difficult.
"To start, we needed to find a place to store all the incoming aid, which wasn't easy. We needed to find a warehouse that hadn't been flooded and was sanitary to store emergency supplies," says Christy Delafield, communications director for Mercy Corps, an international aid group. "Then it's about last-mile distribution and speed... The logistical and operational challenges in this response are herculean."
Mercy Corps' current distribution center is a community church in Freeport, the largest city on Grand Bahama. The organization hopes to hand out enough mosquito nets, tarps, water, and chlorine tablets for about 200 families. But floods from the hurricane have rendered countless vehicles useless, leaving needy Bahamians without transportation to pick up aid. What's more, most on the island have no generators and lack the ability to charge cell phones. So even finding aid can be difficult.
"If it's just us going door-to-door, we won't be able to get to these people in time," Delafield says. "We're working with local groups [to] reach those without a means of transport. You need as much help as you can get when you respond to a disaster like this."
Karla Peña of Mercy Corps is no stranger to disasters. She helped lead aid missions in her home of Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria and is helping the island's recovery. According to Peña, the destruction she has witnessed in the Bahamas is right up there with what her island faced after Maria.
"The key is connecting with local groups as soon as possible. That's how you avoid duplicating efforts," she says.
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Last week, the Miami-based Haitian advocacy group Family Action Network Movement (FANM), formerly known as the Haitian Women of Miami, said it had received several disturbing tips from Bahamas residents about undocumented people being too afraid about their immigration status to seek help. Along with more than 20 others groups, FANM sent a letter to various Bahamian government officials demanding all immigration enforcement be suspended during recovery.
The Bahamian government announced Wednesday it would place a temporary hold on deportations of people from the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama. Immigration enforcement on other islands is set to continue, though.
On Wednesday, reports by CNN and NBC posited that the Trump administration will not offer temporary protected status (TPS) to Bahamians ravaged by Dorian. With TPS, Bahamians could live and work in the United States without any fear of deportation until their country is safe.
Such a decision would be par for the course for President Donald Trump, who this week talked down loosening visa requirements for displaced Bahamians looking to reunite with family in the States. "I don't want to allow people that weren't supposed to be in the Bahamas to come into the United States, including some very bad people and some very bad gang members and some very, very bad drug dealers," Trump said Monday on the White House lawn.