They’re sheltering in half-destroyed houses and bathing at humanitarian stations. Going without electricity and relying on word of mouth. Cleaning up the debris that covers the islands. Slowly but surely, people are returning to the Abaco Islands.
When the Bahamas hit the Abacos, only about 2,500 people remained out of a population of nearly 14,000.
That’s according to data provided to Direct Relief by David Morales, an information management and research officer at the International Organization of Migration, an intergovernmental group that tracks population movement among internally displaced persons, refugees, and migrants.
But now, according to the data Morales provided, which was also published in a November 5 situation report by the IOM, more than 3,000 people have returned to the Abaco Islands – making a total of over 5,500 people, some of them living without water or electricity.
“Bahamians are going back, and they’re resilient, and it’s beautiful to see Abaco blossoming again,” Morales said.
A few weeks ago, IOM’s data mappers were puzzled when people – about 5,000 of them – started disappearing from shelters in Nassau, the Bahamian capital.
Now, the numbers suggest that some of those are returning home again. And where people are coming back, they’re often there to work.
“The majority of people returning are men, returning because they’ve been hired by some…organization that is doing some sort of recovery work,” said Louby Georges, a protection officer with IOM.
Haitian immigrants, many of whom are concerned about the Bahamian government’s deportation efforts and are keeping a low profile, are among the returnees.
On the smaller cays, Georges said, gardeners, carpenters, and handymen are plying their trade. But “the only work that’s happening in mainland Abaco is debris removal.”
That’s in line with what Andrew MacCalla, Direct Relief’s vice president of emergency response, saw during a recent visit to the area.
In Marsh Harbour, the Abacos’ commercial hub, “there’s nothing there. It’s completely wiped off the map,” he said.
By contrast, Charmaine Cornish, a nurse-midwife at the Cooper’s Town clinic, said that her neighbors were primarily living in their own houses – often with a tarp over a damaged roof.
Conditions on the Abacos are so fluid – and vary so much by town and by island – that it’s tough to get a sense of exactly what’s happening.
But one thing is for sure: The conditions that returnees experience are uncomfortable, to put it mildly.
While some areas are back on the grid, many are living in damaged homes without electricity. “People are living in all sorts of places,” Georges said, even in community centers and churches.
“People [are] going to the toilet in the bushes because there’s no running water,” Morales said.
And while a grocery store – Maxwell’s in Marsh Harbour – recently opened, many are relying on humanitarian assistance for food, drinking water, and other necessities.
“Resources are very scarce,” said Georges. “Thank God for the international community.”
On Great Abaco, Georges said, people who aren’t employed in the debris removal are cleaning up, going through the debris to find good lumber, making repairs. Although some schools are at least partially functioning, children are running around and playing. People are “honestly just existing…they’re waiting on help to come their way and then that’s it,” he said.
MacCalla said that the clinic in Marsh Harbour sustained very little damage, but “it’s maybe half functioning…There are 20 plus staff members sleeping in wards and rooms of the hospital.”
However, primary health care was available at the hospital as well as at outlying cays, several of which have volunteer doctors offering services, MacCalla said.
At the Cooper’s Town clinic, Cornish said she was primarily treating chronic diseases, skin conditions, and respiratory ailments. Many of the clinic’s diabetic and hypertensive patients were given a month’s supply of medication before the storm hit, so disruptions to care were minimized.
Cornish is currently living in her house along with her husband. The tarp has finally come off, she said, although there was a lot of damage to the roof and carpet. “It’s coming along,” she laughed.
While she says some members of her community wish that life were returning to normal more quickly, by and large, they’re adjusting.
“Some persons are going out and finding a spot where they can socialize, eat conch salad,” she said, referring to a classic Bahamian dish.