Assessment of the Effects and Impacts of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas - Executive Summary

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Hurricane Dorian is not an isolated occurrence, but the latest example of recurrent extreme climate events that have changed the Bahamian landscape and impacted its economy. The increase in water temperatures is likely to contribute to a tendency for tropical storms to be, on average, stronger than they have been in the past (Bruyere, Holland, 2014; Balaguru, Foltz 2018; Bathia, Vechia et al, 2019; Trenberg, Cheng et all, 2018). Due to its location in the Atlantic hurricane belt and like other Small Island Developing States (SIDS), The Bahamas is extremely vulnerable to the effects of disasters and climate change, as some 80 percent of the landmass is within 5 ft (1.5 m) of mean sea level and coastal areas hold the majority of the population and economic activity. Another relevant vulnerability is access to drinking water, which is made worse by contamination of water resources caused by storm surges. In the upcoming years, the country will face difficult questions of whether to relocate coastal populations and how to smartly invest in more resilient infrastructure. It is, therefore, imperative for The Bahamas, as a country, to establish a comprehensive approach to meeting these challenges and to incorporate considerations for disaster risk management into all features of national development. Disasters are described as a combination of exposure to hazard and conditions of vulnerability. Greater vulnerability is usually linked to socio-economic and territorial aspects, as poorer populations tend to live in at-risk areas disregarded by formal planning systems, all but ensuring a greater exposure to hazards. This exposure of social and economic assets to hazards can be somewhat balanced with measures to mitigate vulnerabilities, such as investments in early warning and preparedness, and addressing pre-existing social issues such as informal settlements.

Disasters set accomplishments back in social and economic arenas and put a strain on national budgets. This is of concern for The Bahamas, a country not eligible to receive official development assistance (ODA) and where government debt, for example, doubled from 32 percent of GDP in 2007 to 65 percent of GDP in 2014. In this regard, the DaLA assessments of Hurricanes Joaquin, Mathew, Irma and now Dorian offer a historical record of the cumulative effects and impacts on economy, infrastructure and society from recurrent disasters and offers guidance for future decision-making processes.

In The Bahamas, the characteristics of its territory and dispersed population in the Family Islands adds extra challenges for planning and recovery. Settlements are usually dispersed and contain small populations, which increases the costs associated with the provision of public utilities and the development of infrastructure which needs to be extended for long distances to supply communities. Dispersion of population also contributes to inequitable access to social services of varying quality. Additionally, the islands face economic vulnerabilities. Tourism and fishing are, together with public employment, a plurality of the jobs in the Family Islands. Dorian, like other hurricanes, caused widespread damage that directly and indirectly affected these productive activities.

The Bahamas has made important efforts in mitigating risks and improving resilience through instruments such as hard engineering and a modern building code, along with the enactment of the Disaster Preparedness and Response Act from 2006 (amended in 2011). The subjects dealt with in the Act are also reflected in the Vision 2040, the National Development Plan of The Bahamas, which frames the country’s development agenda within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Nevertheless, the effects of Hurricane Dorian brought to light many areas that still require improvement, not only in terms of physical risk, but in social and economic aspects.

Resilience involves identifying these risks and developing measures to reduce them, such as enhancing infrastructure and land-use planning and financial protection. Addressing physical vulnerability must be accompanied by social policies to protect the livelihoods of the most vulnerable groups. Special attention should be given to the particularities and constraints of the Family Islands, such as the challenges to enforce and verify compliance with building codes. Specific policies and programs and possibly additional financial resources should address these. Education and public awareness are also important mechanisms and should be a crosscutting component of any disaster risk management plan. Although a strong system of risk modeling and disaster data management is a must, the population needs to understand the kind of risk they are exposed to and be provided with the tools and capacity to act accordingly at times of emergencies.

On 1 September 2019, the eye of Hurricane Dorian made landfall on the Abaco islands with maximum sustained winds of 185 mph (280 km/h), wind gusts over 220 mph (335 km/h), and central barometric pressure of 911 millibars (26.9 inHg). Abaco and its cays along the eastern side were the most affected areas. According to the trajectory of the hurricane, the central and northern part of the island were affected by hurricane force winds, storm surge and flooding. According to the Bahamas Department of Meteorology, the storm surge provoked storm tide of 20 to 25 ft (6.1 to 7.6 m). Dorian also dropped an estimated 3 ft (0.91 m) of rain over The Bahamas.

Therefore, Dorian is considered the strongest hurricane on record to affect The Bahamas, not only because of its wind intensity, but also due to the storm surges. The storm surges provoked extensive damage in the most proximal zones to the coasts and lowlands.

On 2 September, the eye of Dorian moved over the eastern side of Grand Bahama and drifted across the island as a Category 5. The hurricane then stalled over Grand Bahama for another day, finally pulling away from the island on 3 September. According to the descriptions of the Department of Meteorology, storm surge and flooding were the events provoked by hurricane Dorian that caused the most severe damage, especially in the eastern side of the island.

The flooding on Grand Bahama began from the north and northeast towards the south of the island, this phenomenon was due to the trajectory of the hurricane and the period that Dorian remained in the northern part of The Bahamas in open ocean.

After hurricane Dorian and the provision of initial emergency services, the government of The Bahamas asked the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to assess the resulting damage, losses and Additional costs. The IDB requested the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) for technical assistance with the assessment. This report presents the results of this assessment. It also brings recommendations to guide a resilient reconstruction process that can reduce vulnerabilities and risks for the population and for every sector of the economy. Since 2015, it is the fourth assessment in this kind conducted by IDB and ECLAC in The Bahamas.

The report is divided into two sections. The first section contains the description of event, affected population and detailed explanation of damage, losses and Additional costs in all social, infrastructure and productive sectors. Additionally, this part includes an analysis of environmental effects and the macroeconomic impact. The second part introduces recommendations for resilient reconstruction based on the findings of technical experts and best-practices and is divided in five pillars: risk identification, risk reduction, preparedness, financial protection and resilient recovery. The upcoming section will summarize the main findings and the document and briefly describe the conclusions of each chapter. All monetary estimates are made in Bahamian dollars; to simplify the symbol $ is used.