The Caribbean region is a paradise of small islands dotting pristine turquoise waters. Honeymooners and retirees alike flock to the temperate waters seeking tranquillity and relaxation. That tranquillity was disturbed on 1 September 2019, however, when Hurricane Dorian made landfall on Elbow Cay, east of Grand Abaco in the Bahamas. For three days, the category 5 hurricane battered Abaco and Grand Bahama, causing catastrophic damage. As fierce winds blew, the sea churned, sending a wall of water up to seven meters high across the low-lying islands. The extensive damage led to widespread displacement of populations. Survivors seeking food and shelter were slowly evacuated by air and sea to New Providence, Eleuthera, Andros and other home islands. Given the proximity to the US and the extensive Bahamian diaspora in South Florida, evacuees with required documentation were allowed passage to the US. Hurricane Dorian caused an estimated 9,840 new displacements in the Bahamas.
Displacement following Hurricane Dorian was exceptional for the region, both in terms of numbers and patterns of movement. The study behind this report was based on a qualitative methodology with 41 semi-structured interviews as well as participant observation. Interviews were conducted with experts, host families and displaced people. The fieldwork was undertaken in New Providence, Grand Bahama and South Florida in October 2019, roughly five weeks after the hurricane made landfall. This report focuses on displacement geographically and by population groups, while examining the resulting obstacles to durable solutions on the hurricane-prone islands with the following four key findings:
Displacement was compounded by a king tide
Hurricanes are historically common in this region. Local knowledge and building practices in the Bahamas have evolved with lessons learned from prior storms. Although hurricanes caused damage to infrastructure and private property in the past, mass displacement was rare. The damage and widespread displacement associated with Hurricane Dorian was caused by the simultaneous occurrence of the hurricane with a king tide, which led to a wall of water measuring up to seven meters high sweeping across Grand Bahama and Abaco islands.
Both internal and international networks facilitated evacuations
Shelters in the capital, Nassau, and in New Providence were the main destinations of immediate post-Dorian evacuation. As survivors gained access to communication, however, displacement was largely absorbed by extended personal networks, either in New Providence, other home islands or surrounding countries. For the displaced people still in collective shelters at the time of writing, a lack of networks has led to uncertain access to assistance.
Durable solutions to displacement are still unclear
The road to recovery and rebuilding following Hurricane Dorian will be long. Most personal property and key infrastructure were damaged by a combination of the storm and the resulting storm surges. Even though the Bahamian government implements progressive economic measures in the affected areas, such as efforts to fund the rebuilding of homes and businesses, policy and economic response gaps remain. Firstly, the legal status of Haitian nationals unemployed as a result of the storm remains unclear. Secondly, the implementation of government initiatives to increase employment on the disrupted islands is nascent. Lastly, the long-term process of rebuilding after $2.5 billion in losses and damages will face a perpetual race against the occurrence of future hurricanes. The accumulated destruction caused by recent hurricanes will continue to limit the ability of the Bahamian government to manage long-term disaster risk reduction.
Hurricane Dorian was a catalyst for pre-existing internal tensions
As the Bahamian community began to struggle with the devastation caused by Hurricane Dorian, a narrative emerged critical of an already stigmatised Haitian community in Abaco and sexual and gender minorities in Grand Bahama. News outlets descended on informal settlements in Marsh Harbour, mainly populated by Haitians, and highlighted inequalities in displacement. These inequalities, however, had already been exemplified by an underlying legal battle waged by the Bahamian government to evict residents of informal settlements. While survivors of Haitian descent went into hiding because of the threat of deportations, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning and intersex (LGBTQA+) organisations pursued solutions to minimise the risk of violence in shelters. Assault against sexual and gender minorities in the Bahamas has pushed some outed members to seek asylum in Canada.