As private boats began arriving in Abaco on Friday to help evacuate Hurricane Dorian’s storm victims in the Bahamas, frustration grew in the skies as airplane and helicopter pilots complained that chaotic air traffic control is hampering relief efforts.
The frustration comes as the Bahamas expands flight restrictions into Grand Bahama and Abaco that pilots say are forcing them to first fly into Nassau, the country’s capital, before being allowed to head out to storm-damaged communities, where thousands are awaiting evacuations off the devastated islands.
“Going in and out of Nassau is the biggest pain in the butt,” said a Miami-Dade charter pilot, who has been helping in the relief effort and asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation.
“These guys don’t know how to vector people; they don’t know how to create traffic flow. Sandy Point for me is a 15-minute flight, and I got vectored for an hour,” said the pilot, referring to instructions from the air traffic control tower to fly around until permission is given to land. “And they tell you to fly slow so that they can get all of this other traffic in.
“We’ve got to get thousands of people off Abaco,” he added, describing the scene at the Sandy Point airport on the southern part of Great Abaco Island, where many people have been sleeping for days waiting for rescue. “These guys don’t understand how urgent it is.”
The pilot, who had hoped to do four runs between Sandy Point and Nassau, said after 11 hours in the Bahamas on Thursday, he was able to do just one run and evacuate 11 people. In addition to local Bahamian air traffic controllers being poorly trained to handle the overflow of planes, the pilot said, “people that are flying over from the States and sightseeing are not helping.”
“The small airplanes that want to help, I love them to death. But please stay away right now, don’t come in because you have guys like myself with big heavy airplanes and guys with helicopters who can land and get people medically evacuated. They just need to stay away. If they want to help, make donations to local groups or send things over on a boat.
“We need help from the [U.S. Federal Aviation Administration] and air traffic controllers to assist or take over the Bahamas airspace allowing relief supplies to operate more than efficiently,” he said.
In 2010, Haiti faced a similar challenge with its airspace after its devastating earthquake left more than 300,000 dead. The U.S. military quickly took over air traffic functions to steer aid flights.
A video that circulated Friday on social media among pilots expressed the frustrations many pilots in Nassau are feeling.
“It is unbelievable to see how disorganized this shitshow is,” the person on the video said. “And people are hungry. And people are tired and people are frustrated to get out of there. ... We spent six hours in Nassau, doing nothing but waiting.”
A helicopter pilot who arrived in the Abacos shortly after Dorian’s passing said Bahamian air traffic control operators are “just overwhelmed and not equipped to handle the amount of traffic.”
“We are waiting up to three hours for clearances mostly due to single-engine ‘sight-seeing’ flights that are not a priority,” said the pilot, who also asked not to be named.
On Thursday night, as he returned from Abaco with thunderstorms, the helicopter pilot said he was sent out to sea by the air traffic control tower in Nassau “and they would not respond to my requests for vectors back to Nassau. I had to ‘shop’ the approach frequencies to get a controller that could turn me back toward Nassau for the approach. Had I not been flying with 30-plus years of experience, air traffic control may have put me in a low fuel condition over the sea at night with thunderstorms.”
The Bahamas minister in charge of civil aviation and tourism, Dionision D’Aguilar, did not respond to a Miami Herald request for comment about the growing concerns. Three other individuals with Bahamas Civil Aviation also did not respond to emails requesting comment.
The Miami Herald/McClatchy learned late Friday that the Trump administration had requested “airlift and logistics support” from the Defense Department in order to clear the airfield in Abaco to get aid in. Meanwhile, a pilot confirmed that Bahamas Civil Aviation had released new instructions for pilots late Friday: In order to enter the restricted airspace, which was expanded earlier in the day, a pilot would need to get an authorization code and establish communication with U.S. Navy controllers.
Earlier on Friday, Alfred Sears, an attorney and former member of the Bahamian parliament, fired off a letter to Prime Minister Hubert Minnis after spending six hours at Jet Aviation in Nassau on Thursday “trying desperately and unsuccessfully to evacuate” his family from Abaco.
“My niece, Jennifer Sears, her companion, Myron Delancy, and her four children (ages 1, 3, 5 and 8), lost everything they owned in Murphy Town, Abaco, during Hurricane Dorian,” Sears wrote. “My brother, Peter Sears, his wife, Collette Sears, who is disabled, their two sons and a disabled daughter lost everything they owned in Murphy Town as well. After the hurricane, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, they managed to get to the Sandy Point Airport waiting for days to be evacuated to Nassau.
“It seems that there is no justice for poor people in The Bahamas,” Sears said. “Only Government officials, wealthy companies, the critically injured, US citizens or those with means or influence are being evacuated from Abaco. ... God help the average Bahamian person, who is not a priority even in the aftermath of this national disaster. What I saw yesterday in the faces of Bahamians and friends arriving from Abaco is a sad reflection of the total collapse of the Bahamian state, leaving thousands of Bahamians bruised for life.”
In an interview with the Miami Herald, Sears said that while he eventually got his niece and her family out on Friday morning, he can’t help but wonder about those individuals without connections.
“The response has been too slow,” he said. “I think that either there was not an appreciation or a reluctance to acknowledge the scale of what is a humanitarian crisis because the testimonials of the people I spoke with and my own family is that from Sunday it was apparent that there was a crisis on the ground. And the government is only today announcing that there will be evacuations through BahamasAir. We have waited until the people are in a state of desperation.”
During his time at the airport, he said, he too heard from several pilots about their frustration.
“Clearly you have to maintain some level of control, but the lack of efficiency in processing the humanitarian contributions and volunteers and even military technical assistance has really hampered the relief that is urgently needed by the people on the ground,” he said.
Sears said that on Thursday members of the Jamaica Defense Force, which brought in an airplane to do reconnaissance flights to help the 150 military personnel Jamaica deployed to help, were unable to fly to either Abaco or Grand Bahama because “they could not get clearance from civil aviation.”
They were not the only ones having problems getting to Abaco by air.
Haiti’s chargé d’affaires, Darlier Dorval, said he’s faced a string of red tape and bureaucratic hurdles trying to get into Abaco, where The Mudd, a community of mostly Haitian migrants, was completely destroyed during the Category 5 hurricane.
“From Day One, I’ve been trying to get to Abaco and cannot. My minister told me even if I have to rent a plane to do so. I’ve made all kinds of attempts and haven’t been able to get authorization” from the local authorities to fly into Abaco, he said. “It’s very difficult to find a way.”
Dorval said he will finally fly to Abaco on Saturday aboard one of the commercial Bahamasair flights the government finally authorized. He was speaking from the docks, where he said a boat was loading everything from food, water, clothes, “even toothpaste,” to carry for the local Haitian community.
“Their situation really is not good,” he said.
Opposition leader Philip Brave Davis, who faced problems trying to fly into Grand Bahama on Thursday night and had to abort the trip, said the government needs to loosen up the restrictions.
“At this time, no red tape or challenges should be the reason for not being able to deliver relief or comfort to our people,” he said. “In fact, we should have an open border situation for relief at this time and then audit it later on, at least for the immediate term.”
Davis said the crisis is of “gigantic proportion,” and “we do need as much help as possible. We can’t do it alone. We need help, wherever that help can come from at this time.”