News & Politics

Spared Full Force of Irma, Bahamians Organize Relief, Worry for Future

Government considers continued evacuation of southern islands as Maria nears

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At the 11 a.m. church service at Harlem’s Bethany Baptist Church on September 10, the wooden pews were largely filled with well-dressed older New Yorkers. Most were first- or second-generation immigrants from the English-speaking islands and archipelagos of the Caribbean, which at that moment had already been battered by Hurricane Irma and were bracing for the possibility of more storms as well.

The service was partly a celebration of the 105th anniversary of the Bahamian American Association, Inc. (BAAI), and several prominent members of New York’s Bahamian community were in attendance. One of them, Civil Court Judge J. Machelle Sweeting, was unbowed. “Irma has not impacted the Bahamas so much that the spirit of the Bahamas is not represented here in the house,” she told the assembled congregation, to cheers.

Indeed, many of the assembled Bahamians felt not only concern, but also a measure of relief. Irma had mostly avoided hitting the northern islands, including New Providence, home of the capital and largest city, Nassau. Some southern islands were affected, but the nation’s new government, sworn in only this past May, managed to airlift about 1,200 people to the capital ahead of the storm’s landfall, a fact that was noted approvingly by several in attendance.

Christine Butler, a Bronxite who was born in the Bahamas and moved to New York for college in the 1980s, said she’d chatted with her sister, a teacher who lives in New Providence, that morning on the way to church. “They battened down the school windows, and now they were trying to put sandbags around their house, because they live on three waterways,” she said. Ultimately, Irma passed by New Providence without much incident. “They’re just getting a lot of wind, but there were no damages to property.”

The southern islands suffered downed power lines, damages to roofs, and fallen trees and debris, but largely escaped any lasting damage. Hotels and resorts — hugely important in a nation where over 40 percent of the economy depends on tourism — are mostly operational again, though the nation remained at risk from Hurricane Maria, which could reach the southern Bahamas by week’s end. BAAI president Andrew Albury says the Bahamian government is hoping to keep the southern islands evacuated in anticipation: “Some of the people, they want to go back, but we’ll have to wait and see.”

For several Bahamians, the aftermath of Irma stood in stark contrast to the wake of Matthew, a Category 5 behemoth that slammed into the archipelago in October 2016, killing dozens and causing lasting structural damage. Close to 95 percent of buildings in two residential areas of Grand Bahama, the nation’s northernmost island, sustained significant damage at the time. “My family is still recovering in the Bahamas from Hurricane Matthew,” says Butler.

Albury agrees that Matthew did more damage in the Bahamas than Irma, even as he helps organize a push to provide aid now. “I’m going to fly down next week to see what they need, and how much of it they need,” he said, adding that there were already efforts underway to identify exactly what was required: “If you give fifty dollars, we want to know exactly who needs that fifty dollars.” Most of the aid would take the form of medicine, food, and clothing, he said. Given the Bahamas’ relative reprieve from the storm’s worst effects, Albury said that some of the aid would be sent to other Caribbean nations, like Antigua and Barbuda, where it was more vital.

Not that the Bahamas was entirely spared the brunt of Irma. A reverse storm surge caused the ocean at the archipelago’s Long Island in the south to recede hundreds of feet from the waterfront, leaving bare sand and dying fish, according to reports that caused concern among those gathered at the Harlem church. Congregants also worried about the possibility of more hurricanes bearing down on the beleaguered population.

“I am concerned because the Bahamas is twenty-two inhabited islands. Any one of those hurricanes can hit any one of those islands,” said Beryl Edgecombe, the president of Bahamian American Cultural Society. “Because of the population and the income levels, there is the possibility that they won’t recover in the timeframe we would like.”

While the Bahamas’ per capita GDP is about $25,000, high compared to neighbors like Antigua and Barbuda and Barbados, it suffers from increasing income inequality, with chronically high unemployment — nearly 15 percent for almost a decade — and a tax system that many believe favors the rich. Those without steady employment and a significant savings base may find it especially difficult to reconstruct, and will have to rely on external aid.

Butler was a bit more dire in her evaluation of the coming danger. “I look at Tortola [in the British Virgin Islands]; I look at Barbuda,” she said. “They can’t take any more hits. I don’t think no one can take any more hits.”

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