Juliette Kayyem is a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security and faculty chair of the homeland security program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
NASSAU, Bahamas — Among the relief workers who cycle in and out of the Bahamas in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, an unofficial refrain sums up the situation: You can smell more bodies than you can find.
The government death toll remains, officially, at 58 , but nobody here in Nassau believes it. The conventional wisdom among locals holds that hundreds of the 1,300 still reported missing were swept out to sea, but as the massive debris removal gets underway, the smell implies a different story. On the devastated islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama, souls are being found: There are still “quite a bit of bodies,” said Abaco’s Marsh Harbour coroner, Anon McIntosh.
For nearly 24 hours, Dorian’s 200 mph winds sat on top of Abaco and its 17,000 residents, ripping everything apart and drowning whole areas before moving slowly on to Grand Bahama. More than 10,000 evacuees from Abaco alone are thought to be in Nassau. They talk of bodies they saw, families entirely lost.
But it isn’t only the uncounted dead that the Bahamian government is worried about, as criticism of its slow response to the Sept. 1-2 disaster begins to pivot to frustration. For the richest country in the Caribbean to remain so, it must present a different vision of recovery, one that tells the outside world that it is open for business. “14 islands of the Bahamas are ready and waiting to receive you,” a tourist office tweets, ignoring the other devastated two. Massive cruise ships are again lined up in Nassau’s untouched harbor, monstrosities of grandeur looming over the overcrowded evacuation shelters in their shadow.
There is no shame in these opposing narratives; both are true. For any recovery to begin, the dead must be accounted for and treated with respect. But recovery for the Bahamas is dependent on a steady stream of visitors; after all, 60 percent of its economy is related to tourism.
At the same time, Dorian has made this Caribbean nation the newest evidence of our changing climate and sea-level rise: Disasters are changing, and how we deal with them must change as well.
For much of the 20th century, emergency response was based on the notion that natural disasters were random and rare. Yes, bad things happened, but with a surge of resources and commitment, a damaged community could quickly get back to where it was.
But storms like Dorian are no longer random and rare — and they are stronger and more violent. “It is a template hurricane,” Bahamian meteorologist Wayne Neely said. “It’s the new normal.” Which raises this question: Why invest in recovery that builds communities back when the next storm is always coming, maybe harsher than the last? The simple question in Abaco is whether to rebuild at all.
The government here has not decided how to answer. It has placed a moratorium on some rebuilding on Abaco so that recovery efforts can be fully planned before everyone just starts doing the same thing again. Meanwhile, people from Abaco don’t know whether they are temporary storm evacuees or permanent climate-change refugees.
At the Kendal Isaacs Gymnasium in Nassau, 700 of these evacuees are on a single floor, with crammed mattresses and babies crying, mothers trying to look respectable for Sunday services, men playing cards. The government does not allow cameras inside, saying that it is for the evacuees’ privacy. The evacuees, almost all of them of Haitian descent, whisper from their beds that it is because officials don’t want the images coming out. “Home is home,” said Shella Monestime, whose baby was born a day before Dorian hit and who expects to return to Abaco, although her physical home is gone. “This,” she noted, pointing to the shelter, “is no place for anyone.”
Storms impact communities as they find them. Hurricane Katrina did not create corruption in New Orleans city management. Hurricane Maria did not create a crumbling infrastructure in Puerto Rico. And Hurricane Dorian did not create an ethnic divide between Bahamians and Haitians, who came to Abaco for jobs and remain stigmatized in a country that barely affords them citizenship, let alone political participation. They have no say in the future of their island.
The scene on Grand Bahama is not as grim. That island also took a direct hit from Dorian, but people are returning to rebuild. The government has asked various relief services to remain for now, said Scott Lillibridge, who runs the medical disaster units for the International Medical Corps. “We don’t know how long we will be here, but we aren’t leaving soon,” he said.
One major storm, neither random nor rare, has left many missions in its wake: the cleanup; whether, and how, to build again; the future of Haitian immigrants, who fear the government will simply send them back to Haiti; and luring vacationers to keep the desperately needed money flowing.
But first the bodies must be found and identified, so their families can pay respects. Maybe they’ve been swept away to the ocean. The smell suggests otherwise.