In the Bahamas tourists are still sunbathing on the beaches and still swimming in the sea. It is as if nothing has changed in paradise. Not to distant from the hotels and swimming pools. Holiday heaven has turned into a hell-hole. Every dwelling had been destroyed. Cars are overturned. The ground has become a land strewn with waste. People are homeless; no one knows how many died here and how many evacuated. Natural disasters expose the gap between the haves and have nots and Hurricane Dorian was no different. Bahamas has a reputation is one of the most desirable tourist destinations on earth, with luxury hotels and vacation homes. But once again, it is the poorest who have been hardest hit when catastrophe strikes. The Bahamas has the second highest economic and social inequality in the Caribbean. As Hurricane Dorian approached, affluent people were able to get out early whereas the poor had to remain and try to ride it out. Nearly two weeks after Dorian made landfall, at least 50 deaths have been reported, more than 1,300 people are missing and an estimated 15,000 are without food or shelter.
Many poor lost everything. Earl Arthurs, the operations specialist for the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, said: “Any disaster, the poor people will be the ones that are punished. A poor person owns a small house and it’s not insured so when the hurricane comes and it’s washed away, that’s it. A rich person owns a nice mansion and it gets totaled but he gets money to build a new one. So that’s a big difference. Some of these people are living from hand to mouth, weekly pay cheque, so when something like this happens and they cannot work, they will definitely be dependent on government for support.” There are concerns that undocumented Haitian immigrants may be reluctant to seek government aid lest they be penalized and deported. Arthurs said: “In every country, including the United States, people are scared to come out and register during crisis time, because after the crisis is finished they fear that they probably have enough information on them to go and pick them up and deport them.”
Paul Taylor, the operations response manager of Team Rubicon UK, an NGO working with partners to coordinate and distribute aid, added: “As ever, there are people who do the work that the rich people don’t want to do and here that’s the Haitian community. There are lot of illegals here as well.I think the issue now is what happens to people who don’t have any status here, who might be quite concerned about that. You’ve got to evacuate people from the islands – big reconstruction job – but where do those people go?”
Haitians have lived in the Bahamas for centuries but face poverty and prejudice, for reasons including religious beliefs that can include voodoo. A 2008 article in the College of the Bahamas Research Journal, entitled the Stigma of Being ‘Haitian’ in the Bahamas, noted that “Bahamians have long ‘looked-down’ on Haitians as not being social equals”.
The Mudd shanty town was built by thousands of Haitian immigrants over decades in Marsh Harbour on Abaco. But it was wiped out in hours, its flimsy wooden structures standing little chance against the wrath of Dorian. Many fled and are unaccounted for. Some have evacuated by boat to Nassau. Some sought refuge in places such as the pink-walled New Haitian Mission Baptist church. Charles Ilfrenord, its pastor, who moved from Haiti 35 years ago but still has family there, said: “Plenty of people died in the Mudd. I think more than 1,000.”
“It’s all fine when you’re living in paradise and a Haitian comes and mows your lawn. We’ve just created our own structure and there hasn’t been any attempt to integrate.” said one person.
Another said, “Everybody’s been hit, the rich and the poor, but for the rich it’s less severe because they live in better buildings. The people you work for for years don’t send a private plane for you. You worked for them for years but they don’t give you any food, any vacation pay.”
Tourism employs about half the Bahamian workforce and accounts for around half GDP. Abaco is renowned for its marinas, golf courses and all-inclusive resorts. Even now, a leaflet at Nassau airport advertises the Abaco Beach Resort, including “a boating paradise unlike any other”. Glen Kelly, its harbour master, told the Washington Post: “I’ll put it as raw as I can. We’ve always depended on Haitian labour, legal or illegal, to maintain this place. Now it’s a question of whether they’ll be back.”
Lydia Ruth Hill, a property manager, had no sleep for 48 hours as she searched for missing people in the rubble; two of her relatives are still unaccounted for. She is now inundated with messages from those who left and are worried about their possessions.
“The night before last I answered 400 and some emails of people requesting me to send them stuff – ‘get the guns out of my safe, get my Rolex watch’ – or empty their fridges, when mine’s got rotten stuff in it right now, or care for their pet when mine are dead because I lost my house and everything, and less than 20% supporting us to say what can we try to help you with? They were just really inconsiderate requests when we were on survival mode here and then people mouthing off at us when we said that we don’t have time to do that. At that point I was still trying to get critical care people off the island.”