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The “Clarion Call” of Hurricane Dorian. A Q&A with the Bahamian Disaster Response Minister

Minister Iram Lewis weighs in on the situation in the Bahamas, a year after the storm devastated Abaco and Grand Bahama.


Hurricane Dorian

Temporary housing domes on Great Abaco. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Jim Hull)

On September 1, 2019, the Category 5 storm Hurricane Dorian slammed into the Bahamas, devastating the islands of Grand Bahama and Abaco. Although the official death toll stands at 74, many are still unaccounted for.

Damage was widespread, and the storm caused Bahamians to sustain an estimated $3.4 billion in economic losses. The toll to both physical and mental health was catastrophic.

In the aftermath of the storm, Bahamians risked their lives to conduct search and rescue operations for the stranded and lost. Doctors triaged patients out of damaged clinics. And the world, from governments to NGOs, rushed in to help.

The Bahamian government appointed Iram Lewis, an architect and planner who was involved in the storm’s immediate response, to a new position: Minister of State for Disaster Preparedness, Management, and Reconstruction.

Minister Lewis, who lost family members during the storm – “we still haven’t found them yet,” he said – doesn’t downplay the devastation that Dorian caused.

But in an interview with Direct Relief, he stressed the importance of building back better and stronger, the resilience of Bahamians’ spirits, and what he calls Dorian’s “clarion call” to take the natural world and its capacity for destruction seriously.

Direct Relief: It’s been a year since Hurricane Dorian struck in the Bahamas. Where are you in your recovery efforts? What has been accomplished and what still needs to be done?

Minister Lewis: The new ministry was launched immediately following Hurricane Dorian. And I was named as the first minister.

In February, the Disaster Reconstruction Authority, or DRA, launched a small home repair program, which would allow the humans impacted by Hurricane Dorian to access up to $10,000 in funds for repair. Approximately some 4,500 persons registered for assistance in both Grand Bahama and Abaco.

In Abaco’s Spring City, we had 32 [temporary housing] domes erected, and we had another 100 that we erected on the property of homeowners whose houses were destroyed. In Grand Bahama, we have 50 domes. And hopefully, by the end of this month, we will start the erection of those domes.

Further to this, the government has spent some funds on permanent housing in Abaco.

Over $5 million dollars [was spent] on school repairs in Grand Bahama alone over the last two months. Our schools are used for two purposes: Besides educational [use], they are also used as hurricane shelters.

And the government and NGOs, in unison with the churches, we are working to also repair churches that we used as shelters. In the past, we used these facilities and we did not pay back or give the churches any funding to effect repairs. Now, we are going to be subsidizing these churches on a regular basis to ensure that their facilities are ready to act as shelters.

Work is ongoing. Even in the face of Covid-19 and us having the lockdowns on certain islands of the Bahamas, and sometimes locking down the entire border of the country, we are still working as fast as we can under the circumstances.

Direct Relief: Tell me about the effects of Hurricane Dorian on Bahamians’ physical and mental health.

Minister Lewis: We had to of course care for the physical needs. So providing meals was very important. Water was also very important, and we also had to provide shelter. There was a great effect on our population, particularly in Abaco and Grand Bahama.

From a mental perspective, undoubtedly that’s something that is normally missed. However, the government, we utilized psychologists, we pulled pastors in and other qualified persons from the community, to ensure that persons’ mental capacity was reinforced

There was a point when I hit the road with my team, before I became a minister. We were giving out foodstuff, we were giving out water. And persons who were affected by the hurricane, they were angry. They were shouting at persons who were working, they were snapping, so some of my team members started to break down.

So I had to pull them out for a day or two of giving on the ground. I pulled them into a church setting. I called in a pastor, I called in a psychologist, and we had sessions where they expressed themselves. They were able to cry, they were able to vent, they were able to decompress. And following that, we went back out on the streets and we were able to service the people.

Direct Relief: Talk to me about the economic impact that Dorian has had over the past year.

Minister Lewis: That is something that has really, really, really affected us. Our number two and number three economic contributors to our economy – Grand Bahama being number two and Abaco being number three – were the two islands that were severely impacted.

And when the Inter-American Development Bank did their assessment, they came up with a number of approximately $3.4 billion in terms of Bahamian GDP that was lost as a result of Dorian.

Thus far, we have paid over $3 million to vendors between Abaco and Grand Bahama for reconstruction programs, providing building supplies. We’ve engaged architects, we’ve engaged contractors, we’ve engaged engineers. And further to that, in Abaco, you have NGOs, they provided the supplies and DRA covered the cost of the labor. On that initiative alone, we are nearing half a million dollars.

We have received proposals from overseas for over a $100 million to assist with debris management. Having been stripped of our natural resources, we thought that we would try our best to spend that money locally. So we’ve engaged local Bahamian contractors, and to date, we’ve spent just under $30 million with debris collection, disposal, and management.

Direct Relief: Are people returning home and rebuilding? And if so, what is it like for them when they return home?

Minister Lewis: Oh, people are returning home in great numbers. Those who moved to Nassau or evacuated to Nassau, they moved back to Abaco, and again, we put up temporary homes for them.

[People] want to rebuild home. Dorian was a major blow and affected a lot of persons physically and mentally, but home is still home, and they were just determined to rebuild. Of course, we are mindful of vulnerable areas, and we are making the necessary adjustments to our building code so that they will not endanger themselves.

Direct Relief: Obviously, this was a historic event, and we hope it will never happen again. But what are some of the steps that you’re taking to be more prepared for future hurricanes?

Minister Lewis: Vulnerable communities and populations have been identified [and] strategies are in place to mitigate these susceptibilities.

We have warehouses – we want to be sure going into any disaster period, hurricane season, that we have supplies. We have supplies in those warehouses like generators. We have cots, we have tarps, we have blankets, and we have more supplies on the way to ensure that we are in a state of readiness.

Additionally, through [the United States’] Northern Command and the United States Embassy, we have received 12 medical rescue boats, because what happened during Dorian [was], because of the unexpected flooding, we had a lot of the private citizens use their jet skis to go and rescue persons from their homes, from trees, from high grounds.

Training is very important. So we’ve carried out several training initiatives throughout the country with respect to shelter management, with respect to early warning systems, with respect to ensuring that we have capacity on the various islands.

Besides building harder reconstruction infrastructure, in areas that are prone to flooding, we have identified drains, we have been digging wells, to ensure that drainage will not be as much of an issue as it was.

And with respect to our schools, we have now designed something called a resilient block. Imagine classrooms on either side of a corridor, like a hotel. At the end of that day, on that block, you have the home economic rooms, you have the computer lab, you have a restroom, you have shower facilities. That block will have its own potable water system and also backup generator. You can just close the doors off at either end of the corridor and you have a safe, multi-story shelter.

Direct Relief: What aspect of Bahamians’ response to Hurricane Dorian are you most proud of, and what lessons do you feel that you and the Bahamas, in general, have learned?

Minister Lewis: Well, what I was most proud of was when I saw Bahamians jumping out into the water, jumping on their jet skis, jumping into their boats before help was given, help in rescue [others]. I will hold on to that. Even though the weather is bad, we are not going to leave until we rescue everybody that needs to be rescued, as long as we can see.

I saw the Bahamian public coming together as one force, doing what we had to do to survive.

A lot more attention now is being paid. Dorian has been a clarion call to not take the forces of nature lightly. Pay strict attention to it, and have mitigating plans in place, and also a plan in place to fully recover.

So just the spirit of the Bahamian people, the focus, and the strength and resilience [are] something that I’m extremely proud of.

Since Hurricane Dorian made landfall one year ago, Direct Relief has delivered more than 98 tons of medical aid to health providers across the Bahamas, including the country’s Ministry of Health.  The organization recently funded an operating room container to be installed at Rand Memorial Hospital on the island of Grand Bahama. It is also funding substantial renovations to the hospital and donating a variety of medical equipment. In addition, Direct Relief will provide funding for the repair or rebuilding of a number of damaged medical clinics on Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands. The organization is committed to strengthening the Bahamas’ health system as recovery continues.

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