Two years after Dorian, slow recovery progress in the Abacos

In 2019, Hurricane Dorian, a category 5 storm with 185 mph sustained winds, made landfall on Elbow Cay, one of the many fragile barrier cays and islands that make up the Bahamas’ 120-mile long Abacos chain. Dorian moved on a day later to inflict devastation on Grand Bahama Island’s east end.

Much of the Abacos resembled a war zone when I visited there, three months after Dorian.  But two years later, much of it still does, according to Andrea Dunne-Sosa, Americas’ regional director at Project Hope, a global health and humanitarian organization working with the Ministry of Health in the Bahamas to train community health workers and assist in the disaster response.

A year ago in an address to the nation marking the one-year anniversary of Dorian, prime minister Hubert Minnis was asked how the Abacos had fared in the year since the hurricane.

“Progress has been made in the past year, but not enough,” Minnis said at the time. “There is still so much to do.”

Dunne-Sosa agreed. “Boats are still in yards and on land, sunken boats and cars are still in the water, mounds of debris still remain,” she said, “and it will only take one strong storm for that debris to become deadly. Many people still live in temporary shelters next to their destroyed homes. Dorian damaged more than 85% of the buildings in the Abacos.”

The recovery work halted in March 2020 as international nongovernmental organizations scrambled to get their staffs home before the borders closed when the world shut down due to Covid, according to Dunne-Sosa.

“Unfortunately, most did not return,” she said. “Now we are in the midst of an upswing in Covid-19 cases in the Bahamas just as the economy is beginning its long recovery after the double whammies of Hurricane Dorian followed by the pandemic.”

The main and largest island, Great Abaco, is the site of Marsh Harbour, the commercial hub of the Abacos and the Bahamas’ third largest city. Across the water from Marsh Harbour is Elbow Cay, home to Hope Town and the signature candy-striped Elbow Reef Lighthouse, which did survive Dorian.

There has been some progress, such as the construction of docks on Elbow Cay that are more resistant to storm damage, and the reopening of several hotels, inns and restaurants as well as dive and fishing sites.

However, Covid has exasperated and greatly slowed the recovery, according to Dunne-Sosa.

“There are only two doctors for a population of 15,000 in the Abacos, and one ambulance for the entire island of Great Abaco. There is also no public transportation, so while we’re training community health workers to bridge the gap and provide coverage, it’s very hard to get people into health care facilities, which is wholly inadequate to meet the needs of residents in the event of emergencies,” she said.

She pointed out that the people of Abaco face lifelong impacts from the compound crises of Dorian and Covid. “Heart attacks and other early deaths have increased in adults who survived the hurricane. Covid-19 has caused a lapse in routine health care. With no mental health care providers here, this will continue to manifest in people’s mental and physical health for years to come.”

The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins reported that the Bahamas had close to 1,500 new cases of Covid in the last two weeks of August, according to a report in the Orlando Sentinel that focused on the stalled recovery of the Abacos. 

“Less than 18% of Bahamian citizens and residents have received at least one dose of a vaccine. That’s not nearly enough,” Dunne-Sosa said.

However, Project Hope remains committed to the Abacos. The organization is training community health workers to bridge the gap with limited health care coverage in the wake of Hurricane Dorian and the current pandemic.

“Our mission is to place power in the hands of local health workers to save lives by working side by side with the local health systems to improve health and support community resilience,” Dunne-Sosa said.

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