South Floridans feel a kinship with the people of the Bahamas. The two places share a lot of things: a cruise-ship industry, snowbird culture, and reputations as tax havens. Freeport, on the island of Grand Bahama, is less than a hundred miles from Fort Lauderdale. Nassau, the capital city, is less than two hundred miles away. In the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, which made landfall on the Bahamas on September 1st as the strongest hurricane recorded in the islands’ history, Floridians with boats and planes began an evacuation that rivalled Dunkirk in its approach. Groups of small nonprofits coördinated volunteer pilots, working out of executive airports in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Palm Beach. Boat owners set out with supplies. The volunteers and donors included ex-military medics, hobbyist pilots, local rock bands, billionaires with yachts or Gulfstreams, drone enthusiasts, second-home owners, charitable Christians, and Floridians with still-raw memories of Hurricane Irma, which made landfall on the Florida Keys in 2017, if not Andrew, which has been a benchmark of destruction since it ransacked South Florida, in 1992.
A week after Hurricane Dorian crossed the Bahamas, I visited a group called the Paradise Fund, which was coördinating deliveries of relief supplies, emergency medical services, and evacuations from Lantana Airport, in Palm Beach. Paradise, which was started by two siblings in 2005, as a charity focussed on children, has evolved in recent years into a rapid-response fleet of general-aviation pilots who have responded to hurricanes in the Bahamas, Haiti, and the Florida Keys. From Lantana, I flew into Freeport with a Paradise volunteer, a flight instructor named Altaf Hussain, who runs a pilot school out of the Lantana Airport. Hussain’s plane was a manually controlled Piper Seneca, which he loaded up with Coleman camping stoves and propane, for a group of thirty or so holdouts in Sweetings Cay, a tiny island off Grand Bahama.
The day was hot, humid, and still, and we sweated in the sun in the cockpit as we flew over the clear blue waters of the Atlantic. As we descended over the port, a cruise ship gleamed like a toy in the water below—passenger cruises were still stopping in Freeport, but people were no longer disembarking. The main roads had by now been cleared, and cars drove along them. Air-traffic control consisted of one person on the ground with a radio, and Hussain had to navigate our landing by sight. The landscape was brown and dead, the pines and scrub killed by seawater.
Freeport, one of the Bahamas’ major cargo destinations, is located on the western half of Grand Bahama Island. Conditions were better there than they were on the eastern half, where the eye of the storm had passed—the damage in Freeport had come more from flooding than from the wind—but there was still no power or water, and no money in the A.T.M.s. An oil spill at a storage facility on the island threatened the groundwater and was rapidly seeping into nearby estuaries. The airport terminal was still standing, but drywall had been ripped out by the floodwaters. Crumpled small planes were strewn throughout the dead foliage. Customs officers were working out of pop-up tents off the tarmac, registering a steady flow of donated water, medical supplies, and food. Hussain told me that, earlier in the week, he had seen hundreds of people trying to evacuate, but the crowd had now diminished, to a mostly silent group of thirty or forty people. They stood in line with their luggage outside of a fence manned by a security guard. It was strange to see the baggage carts that read “Welcome to Grand Bahama.”
A local businessman named Fritz Thompson, who lives in Freeport and owned a fishing lodge in Sweetings, met us at the airport. He had come to collect the stoves, canned food, and other supplies for the people of Sweetings, which he described to us as “ninety-seven-per-cent destroyed.” The island had a pre-storm population of a hundred and fifty people, most of whom made their living from fishing. Of the thirty or so people who stayed, all had managed to survive, some by tying themselves to trees. Thompson, who wore a pristine white Nautica polo shirt and a gold chain, had been relatively lucky. His home, in the Freeport neighborhood of Fortune Bay, and his car had survived the storm, whose eye had passed about six miles from where he lived. The fishing lodge on Sweetings Cay had vanished. “The good thing about it is I don’t have to do any cleanup,” he told me. “Nothing is there. Nothing.”
We took a drive east from the airport. Cars still sat in parking lots, their roofs ripped off and their windshields shattered. A boat had floated in from half a mile away. “This is our Grand Bahama Island,” Thompson told me. “Normally, it’s green.” We passed houses that looked like they were under construction but in fact had been ripped apart, missing their windows, roofs, whole sides. Boats lay stranded next to the road. “My buddy has a thirty-eight-foot boat, and he still can’t find it,” he said.
The worst-hit part of the Bahamas was the Abacos, a chain of islands and cays in the north of the country. There, the “mainland” refers to Grand Abaco and Little Abaco, which have a small city, Marsh Harbour, where the roughly seventeen thousand residents of the Abacos go to the hardware store, the grocery store, or the bank. At the Lantana Airport, in Palm Beach, I met a resident of Marsh Harbour named Chris Claridge, who had evacuated the previous day. After the floodwaters receded, Claridge had made his way into downtown Marsh Harbour. He described the city as levelled—“like somebody dropped a bomb and wiped it out.”
Claridge was forty-seven years old, an American citizen who grew up in Florida but had lived in the Bahamas for thirty years. At the airport, he wore a T-shirt and shorts and had a shell-shocked expression. He indicated that the size and the strength of the storm had been unprecedented, even for a country used to weathering hurricanes. For people in the northern Bahamas, the most destructive storm in living memory was Hurricane Floyd, a Category Four storm that hit in 1999. Floyd was the benchmark by which most Bahamians had prepared. “Floyd was a joke,” he told me. “Floyd was a calm breeze compared to what this thing was.”
Claridge’s house survived structurally, but so much rain fell through its damaged roof that he considered it a gut job. He and his wife, who have a seven-year-old son, decided to use their insurance payout as a nest egg and move back to the United States. “I can’t even fathom how long it’s going to take for any of this to get cleaned up,” he said. In Marsh Harbour, he had run an Internet-services provider. In Palm Beach, he would be starting over from scratch.
The number of people who died from the storm in the Bahamas is still not clear. The government has thus far recorded fifty deaths, but expects that number to rise significantly. The current tally of missing persons is more than one thousand. The recorded fatalities were concentrated in two low-lying neighborhoods of Marsh Harbour known as the Mudd and Pigeon Peas, where Haitian immigrants lived in poorly constructed houses that offered almost no protection from the storm. For survivors, the imperative in the days following the storm was to get out: there was no food, water, electricity, shelter, or money, and very little law enforcement. On smaller islands and cays, the evacuations had to be done by boat or helicopter, as bridges were washed out and roads impassable. As bad as the storm was, there was some luck that it did not hit Nassau, the biggest city in the Bahamas, and that it veered away from the Florida coastline. If the storm had hit Florida with the same force, Claridge told me, “It would have been, ‘Abaco, who? Bahamas, what?’ ”
The next day, I visited Nassau, which had become a staging area for delivering supplies and receiving evacuees. The small office of a private airport called Odyssey served as a gathering place for aid workers, service members, journalists, and wealthy busybodies whose efforts at charity at times took on the appearance of adventure tourism. Complaints had started to surface about sightseers in small airplanes clogging the runways in Nassau, of private-plane owners showing up with pallets of water and taking selfies. The Duggar family, whose nineteen children were the subject of a reality television show on T.L.C., had incorporated their visits to Marsh Harbour into their Instagram narratives. There was a little too much talk of packing sidearms and confronting looters, and about which billionaire had donated the use of his airplane. Not one person I met, in the Bahamas or in Florida, said the words “climate change.”
Next door was a less self-aggrandizing effort, in a large hangar where a consortium of local charities and businesses were running relief operations. That morning, a Bahamas Air flight from Marsh Harbour had just landed. The evacuees were greeted with water and sandwiches, then entered a line that led to a group of volunteers, sitting at folding tables with laptops, who registered evacuees’ names and whether they had family and friends in Nassau or needed to stay in a government-run shelter. Another part of the hangar was filled with cargo—donated generators, boxes of diapers, medical equipment—awaiting distribution by flight. In a third area was a makeshift clinic for anyone needing immediate medical attention. The scene was typical of national disasters but moving in its efficacy, given the extent to which so many institutions had broken down.
Outside the airport was an air-conditioned white wedding-style tent, where evacuees could collect some clothing, baby supplies, or food and receive transport to their next destination. I chatted with some men sitting outside who were waiting for rides. They had all gotten trapped after the storm in an Abaco village called Fox Town, which was connected to the larger island of Grand Abaco by a bridge that had washed away. They had finally been evacuated by helicopter the night before, then caught a Bahamas Air flight to Nassau.
“I was there to visit my grandma, and I kind of got stuck there,” a man named Allington Wells said. His own house, in an Abaco neighborhood called Murphy Town, was destroyed. “Fox Town was O.K., building-wise, but it doesn’t make a difference because the center of the island is destroyed. You can’t get gas, you can’t get groceries, so you can’t really survive there.” His grandmother, however, had refused to leave. “Very stubborn lady,” he said.
I took a taxi to a shelter in Nassau, where evacuees were being housed in a large pink gymnasium. On the way there, the discussion on a call-in radio talk show was about the situation of Haitian migrants in the Bahamas. The estimated five thousand Haitians in the Abacos—thirty per cent of the population of the islands—have been subjected to harsh treatment by some native Bahamians, who view them as impoverished and uneducated. “We believe that the Haitian nationals should be rescued from the storm and cared for,” the host said, “but, at some point, those who are in our gates illegally have to be regularized, or they have to be deported.”
“Repatriated!” my taxi driver said.
We pulled up to the shelter, where clusters of people stood around in groups outside.
“Look at all these people—they’re not Bahamians at all,” the driver said. I asked how he knew. “Our people are nice-looking people,” he told me. “I know my people.” Of the people outside: “They’re not Bahamian at all. They’re Haitian.”
Police officers standing outside told me that journalists were not allowed to enter, but a man in a neon green New Balance shirt walked with me down the street so that he could tell me his story. His name was Wilson Jean-Baptiste. He was Haitian, from the city of Hinche, and had come to the Bahamas a year ago, to work. Until the storm destroyed everything he owned, he lived in the Mudd, in Marsh Harbour. He worked in construction and sent most of his earnings back to Haiti, to support his three children, who still lived there. He was most worried about his family, who had not been in the storm at all but depended on his earnings to survive.
The storm itself, he said, was “the worst in the world.” He said he knew some thirty people who had lost their lives, and had seen many people die. “When it isn’t your day to die, God helps you,” he said, about his own survival. We walked down the street, past a stadium next to the gym where the shelter was housed. Small groups of men and women greeted us in Creole as they walked past. For now, at least, Jean-Baptiste lives in Nassau. He left me at a street corner, then continued walking. He was going to look for work.