There Are Efforts To Move Homeless Bahamians To Nearby Island

Sep 9, 2019
Originally published on September 9, 2019 6:08 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's been a week now since Hurricane Dorian devastated the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas. The government is now saying the official death toll is at least 43. But sadly, that number is probably going to keep going up. The main commercial hub for the islands is Marsh Harbour. And the infrastructure there is so badly damaged, the government's trying to move residents off the islands. And it's not clear when they'll come back, if ever. NPR's Jason Beaubien is in Marsh Harbour.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: A yellow bulldozer clears part of a road in Marsh Harbour, shoving piles of concrete, aluminum siding and other hurricane debris off the asphalt. Along with a few Bahamian military transport trucks, it's one of the only large government vehicles moving about town. Utility poles are snapped throughout the middle and northern part of the island. Abaco's only power plant remains offline. There's no running water in Marsh Harbour. And there's a stench of death. An urban search-and-rescue team from Gainesville, Fla., along with Bahamian police officers, are checking collapsed buildings in a commercial district near the harbor.

JOHN CICIO: And we're just going through the heavily damaged areas. And we're helping them search and clear the buildings to make sure there's no injuries or fatalities and, if there is, assisting them with getting those out of there.

BEAUBIEN: John Cicio with the Gainesville Fire Rescue Department says the main way to tell if bodies are buried in the rubble is by smell.

CICIO: At this point in the game, this kind of - this late in the game, there's a definite odor that would tip you off to it. And it is difficult to tell, sometimes, from animals vs. humans sometimes. Maybe some bad food going on. So we had to get a little more in-depth in some situations to confirm it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPRAYING SPRAY PAINT)

BEAUBIEN: If they don't find anyone, they mark the building with orange spray paint and move on to the next one.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER ROTORS WHIRRING)

BEAUBIEN: As U.S. military helicopters and other aircraft shuttle in supplies, the former head of the Abaco Chamber of Commerce says almost every business in Marsh Harbour is shut down.

VADO BOOTLE, SR: Zero commerce. Zero commerce at this time. There's nothing. You can't buy water. You can have as much money as you want. You can't buy anything here.

BEAUBIEN: Vado Bootle, Sr. describes himself as a glass-half-full kind of guy. Everything's wiped out. So it's a chance to rebuild everything back, he says.

BOOTLE, SR: This island is one of the main economic powers for this country. So in my personal opinion, I don't see the way the government could not rebuild this. It has to be done. It's not going to happen overnight. But it has to be done.

BEAUBIEN: But in the meantime, what do you do with the islands' 17,000 residents. What do they eat? Where do they sleep? How do they get water? How do they survive? For the people currently homeless in Marsh Harbour, the government's answer is to send them to shelters in Nassau on the island of New Providence. More than a thousand are already sleeping in gyms and churches in the capital. Hundreds, potentially thousands, of others are staying with friends and relatives. And the government is even appealing to private individuals to take in more of the evacuees who continue to be ferried off of Abaco. So many people have left that much of Marsh Harbour feels eerily calm and empty. Christine Lightbourne with the Bahamas Red Cross, however, says some people are still afraid or unwilling to leave.

CHRISTINE LIGHTBOURNE: You know, unfortunately, some of them are never going to want to leave. And that's a reality that we've faced.

BEAUBIEN: Lightbourne is managing a shelter in Marsh Harbour. She rode out Dorian, along with nearly 500 other people, in a primary school which was turned into a hurricane shelter before the storm. As soon as boats and planes started departing for the capital, Lightbourne and her staff encouraged the people in the shelter to leave the island. On Saturday night, she was down to 248 people staying in the school. She hopes to have fewer than 70 residents by today. She says people here are used to hurricanes. And many feel that they'll bounce back, like they have after every other storm in the past. But she says the devastation from Dorian is different. And it could be a long time before even basic infrastructure is restored here.

LIGHTBOURNE: It's going to be a long process. We have to face the reality of what devastated us. And this is, for real, the worst we've ever had in the Bahamas that I've lived through.

BEAUBIEN: She says as soon as this shelter is empty, she's going to catch the next flight out, too. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Marsh Harbour, the Bahamas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.