‘We’re getting desperate’: Bahamians want out, as relief to storm-ravaged islands escalates

Homeless Bahamians on the Abaco Islands await transport off the island

Evacuees gather at Marsh Harbour Port in Abaco on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, waiting to leave the island after Hurricane Dorian pounded the Bahamas.
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Evacuees gather at Marsh Harbour Port in Abaco on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, waiting to leave the island after Hurricane Dorian pounded the Bahamas.

Relief efforts escalated Friday for the hurricane-ravaged islands of Grand Bahama and the Abacos, with the U.S. military planning airlifts, government officials touring the disaster zones and a private cruise ship delivering tons of supplies.

But many suffering Bahamians, baking under a blistering sun, simply wanted out on Friday — and the pace of evacuations was maddeningly slow.

“It’s all so unsure and chaotic,” said Angelique Hall, who was nursing an infected leg and joined her blind father and young child at the Marsh Harbour Port Authority hoping to catch a ride to Nassau. “We’re getting desperate here.”

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Hall and her family were among 300 to 400 people who crowded the port. A private ferry was hired to evacuate port employees. The boat only had room for about 100 evacuees, and police and military officers were trying to prioritize women, children and the sick.

A similar scene played out at the port in Grand Bahama Island, where the Palm Beach-based Grand Celebration cruise ship, which delivered tons of water and food Friday morning, boarded Bahamians with permission to return to the United States. But hundreds of desperate people gathered in the sweltering heat, and a line of cars snaked for miles, as people tried to board three boats scheduled to leave Freeport on Friday evening.

“After midday, things got out of control,” said Urnik Forbes, 13. “I was panicking holding my little sister.”

Friday marked three days since Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 hurricane with winds of over 180 miles per hour, finished its slow pounding of the islands and authorities worked feverishly to find bodies, reach obliterated neighborhoods and treat victims. At least 43 people died in the Bahamas, but the number is expected to rise.

Some refugees were being ferried to the island of Eleuthera, which escaped major damage but itself needed supplies brought in for the storm exiles.

Prime Minister Hubert Minnis visited Abaco’s port, urging patience and calm, particularly for the Haitian minority community. He also announced that Bahamasair, the country’s national airline, would offer free flights for residents of Abaco and Grand Bahama.

Relief and evacuation efforts, however, had been complicated by chaotic air traffic control.

Alfred Sears, an attorney and former member of the Bahamian parliament, blasted the government’s “too slow” response on Friday.

“What disturbs me the most is the failure to provide immediate relief from the elements. You mean to tell me, we couldn’t put up a tent and supply water and basic supplies to people sleeping outside?” he said. “The response is too slow.”

But hope of better organization came Friday as the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is organizing the relief efforts, formally asked the U.S. Department of Defense for help. Officials announced Friday that the Department of Defense would begin “airlift and logistics support,” which would include clearing the runways at Abaco’s airport.

The Department of Defense had already begun staging personnel and equipment at Homestead Air Reserve Base so staff there could spring into action once given the green light.

“They’re the only ones that have large aircraft and they’re experts at moving food and water and logistical support,” said U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who urged the additional resources while speaking a press conference Friday afternoon.

He toured the disaster zones Friday on a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter, along with Sen. Rick Scott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“All that destruction. Your heart goes out to them,” Scott told reporters after the trip to view the islands from the air. “The international community has to show up.”

Florida senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott along with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis touched down in Andros Town with the U.S. Coast Guard on Friday and got an aerial view of several of the Bahamian islands.

Members of Congress also urged President Donald Trump to loosen visa restrictions so that injured Bahamians in need of medical assistance can travel to the United States for care.

“We’ve made it clear in South Florida that we have many hospitals that can absorb any critical patients that can’t be treated in Nassau or in the other Caribbean islands that have offered to accept them,” U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Miami, said at a press conference Friday morning alongside Miami’s Bahamian consul general, Linda Mackey.

“We will coordinate with the hospitals down here as needed. The Consul General wasn’t sure exactly what was needed at the moment given the catastrophe, but we’ve volunteered to coordinate down here in terms of healthcare,” Shalala said.

Back on Abaco and Grand Bahama, the situation was dire at medical facilities on Friday.

At the Rand Memorial Hospital in Grand Bahama’s capital, Freeport, four people were waiting to be transferred to Nassau for medical care — anyone needing surgeries needed to leave the island. The facility was holding the body of one storm victim, an unidentified man.

Coast Guard helicopters touched down throughout the morning, delivering medical supplies and an IV pump. A Coast Guard officer ran inside the lobby and asked hospital administrator Sharon Williams if she had any room for patients.

“All of our patient rooms were flooded,” Williams said. “We had to close the hospital, except for 10 beds that are fully occupied.”

Outside the Marsh Harbour hospital in Abaco, several dozen people were camped outside looking for help of any kind.

Jeff Paul, 29, had his ankle slashed from heel to shin. It had been crudely stitched up and he’d been given antibiotics. But there was no room for him in the hospital.

“He has no family, we have no information, we have no way to get to the airport,” said Jean Louissant, a friend who translated for Paul, who only spoke Creole. “And inside the hospital they don’t care.”

Residents of Marsh Harbour, Bahamas, struggle to grasp how thoroughly Hurricane Dorian devastated their city. The Category 5 storm struck near Marsh Harbour on Sept. 2, 2019.

Paul wasn’t alone.

Many had hoped for mass evacuations on both islands

In Grand Bahama, government officials and relief workers had yet to reach the Back-of-Town neighborhood, where some of the homes were still standing but are unlivable. Front yards are piled high with water-soaked furniture, clothes and mattresses.

Residents desperately need food, water and generators.

“No one has come to talk or say anything,” said one resident, Roger Moxey, 47. “We need some kind of relief.”

More than 100 people wait outside of the Freeport Cruise Port in Grand Bahama on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. Some Bahamians await the arrival of family members, while others are trying to depart from the island. MATIAS J. OCNER

Down at the port in Freeport, hope beckoned in the shape of the Grand Celebration, part of Palm Beach-based Bahamas Paradise Cruise Lines. The ship early Friday transported 300 volunteers and first responders, about 200 tons of water, food and other supplies, and about 200 Bahamians returning to the island.

“We all feel the pain,” said the cruise line’s CEO, Oniel Khosa. “We couldn’t just sit around.”

But the ship, with a capacity of close to 1,900, was also planning to ferry back Bahamians with U.S. visas, or green cards.

That included 24-year-old Anissa Smith, who has a visa to travel to the United States, and her niece, 8-month-old Kiara Smith, who is an American citizen and whose parents live in Orlando. Anissa and Kiara had been in the Bahamas visiting Anissa’s mother, Donalee Smith, 61, a seamstress.

The matriarch’s home survived largely intact. The family has plenty of food and water. But the lack of air conditioning would make life miserable for the infant.

“I ain’t leaving home. I love home,” Donalee Smith said. “But I worry about the baby. Best she go back to her daddy.”

Rand Memorial Hospital in Freeport was hit hard by Hurricane Dorian, which pummeled the Bahamas over Labor Day weekend. Two U.S. Coast Guard helicopters touched down on Friday, September 6, 2019, to see if there was any room for patients.

Miami Herald staff writers David Goodhue, Charles Rabin, Jacqueline Charles and David Smiley contributed to this report.

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