Getting Aid To Bahamas Is A Logistical Nightmare As Support Systems 'Do Not Exist'


Several hundred Haitians and Bahamians wait at the port of Marsh Harbour in hopes of boarding a boat to Nassau on Friday.
Cheryl Diaz Meyer for NPR

Several hundred Haitians and Bahamians wait at the port of Marsh Harbour in hopes of boarding a boat to Nassau on Friday.

In the Bahamas, the damage Hurricane Dorian wreaked on roads, airports, communication grids and other infrastructure is presenting a logistical nightmare for emergency responders and aid workers trying to get basic supplies to the neediest storm victims.

"Anywhere we could put a warehouse has been destroyed by floodwaters and may not be safe for storing supplies. Communications are down; electricity is down," says Christy Delafield with the aid group Mercy Corps, which has a team on Grand Bahama Island. "Any of the things you would normally do in a response are going to be 10 times harder because the systems that support them do not exist anymore."

It's been a week since Dorian unleashed ferocious rain and wind gusts on the Bahamas, and the challenges of bringing in supplies, transporting them around the islands and spreading word are undiminished.

In the Abaco Islands and on Grand Bahama, two of the hardest-hit areas, air traffic controllers are struggling to keep up with the number of incoming flights carrying humanitarian aid, and transport vehicles to distribute it are in short supply. Delafield said aid workers are trying to make sure victims have food, water and shelter, but many of the people they're trying to help have little or no means of communication.

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"People not having a place to charge their phones, Mercy Corps is bringing in solar lanterns that have phone chargers so people can get word about where distributions are taking place, can have light so they're a little bit more safe," Delafield tells NPR's Morning Edition. "They can contact their loved ones. They can contact emergency services."

The official death toll now stands at 50 and officials expect it to keep rising. With winds of 185 mph and storm surges higher than 20 feet in some places, Dorian is one of the strongest storms in modern records to hit land in the Atlantic.

"The Category 5 hurricane was stuck on the islands for two days, and there is no infrastructure capable of withstanding such a scourge," said Regis Chapman, World Food Programme's head of program for Latin America and the Caribbean.

The storm was a great leveler, having struck down the seaside mansions of the rich as well as the shanties of the poor. In the Bahamian capital, Nassau, more than 1,000 evacuees are sleeping in gyms and churches. Potentially thousands of others are staying with friends and family, while some are seeking shelter in the U.S.

The Abaco town of Marsh Harbour is now eerily empty and calm and surrounded by signs of complete destruction. Thousands of immigrants, many of them from Haiti, called it home. One of them, 42-year-old Jean Noel, says there isn't a single building left standing in the neighborhood known as The Mudd.

Noel says he would like to go back to Haiti, but first he has to get to Nassau.

"You can't do nothing. They have to clean that and to bring you stuff," he says. "So the thing is, we need to get a move from there, go to Nassau, buy our own ticket and go home, that's it."

At the dock in Marsh Harbour, hundreds of people, many of them Haitians, recently waited for a vessel that carries mail to Nassau. It's a fairly large ferry that also carries shipping containers and passengers who normally can't afford to fly between Marsh Harbour and Nassau.

Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis stopped by the dock during a tour of the hurricane devastation. He told the crowd that everyone, no matter where they're from, will get the same amount of disaster assistance.

"All of you, all of you will be treated with respect, so do not be afraid of my government," Minnis said. "All of you will be treated equally. There's no discrimination here. We are all one."

The United States Agency for International Development is working with the Bahamas Red Cross to try to distribute 47 metric tons of supplies that have arrived, including hygiene kits, portable stoves, towels and other aid, according to USAID Administrator Mark Green. He says his agency has devoted nearly $3 million in funding to Dorian response in the Bahamas.

U.S. officials say they have processed thousands of evacuees from the Bahamas arriving by plane and on cruise ships. However, confusion lingers about whether people will be denied entry to the U.S. if they don't have travel documents. It's also unclear whether the Trump administration will grant Bahamians temporary protected status, which would allow evacuees to live and work in the U.S.

The mixed signals were highlighted Sunday when some passengers on a ferry headed to the U.S. were told to get off if they did not have travel visas. The ferry company, Balearia Caribbean, has apologized for the "hardship and inconvenience" of the 119 passengers turned away. Since then, the company says it has transported more than 1,750 people from the Bahamas.

The World Food Programme estimates that Dorian destroyed 13,000 homes, leaving more than 70,000 people in need of food and shelter.

Debris from the storm has also complicated the search for the dead and missing.

Responders must sift through piles of concrete, aluminum siding and asphalt, and there are few heavy government vehicles available. Even when large equipment is available, responders won't use it at a site where they believe there might be survivors or remains.

Locations that have already been searched are marked with orange spray paint, a sign that no bodies were found.

"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," said Jonathan Cicio with the Gainesville Fire Rescue Department in Florida, which is helping with search and rescue efforts.

Delafield of Mercy Corps says the cleanup and recovery in the Bahamas is going to be a years-long endeavor.

"People have furniture and clothes sitting outside their homes trying to dry them out," she says. "There are long lines at gas stations, as people are buying fuel for generators as well as their cars. Long lines at laundromats. Basic daily life is not easy here."

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