Abaconians: Where’s the urgency?

Abaconians: Where’s the urgency?
The Abaco islands post-Hurricane Dorian. (PHOTO: PHILIPP HUBNER)

More issues than COVID-19

Mounting concerns over food security and Hurricane Season 2020

NASSAU, BAHAMAS – Residents on Abaco said they feel neglected eight months after Hurricane Dorian, with food security among the greatest challenges on the island and the mounting threat of hurricane season less than a month away.

In the months following the deadly Category 5 storm, thousands of Abaconians have returned to the island in hopes of rebuilding to some level of normalcy.

But with the global spread of the coronavirus and nationwide border shutdowns in The Bahamas, Abaco residents are now facing more even more distressing realities.

In Central Abaco, the hardest-hit part of the island, some residents still have no potable water or power supply and some continue to live in tents.

What remains the biggest concern however is the ability to feed the residents who remain on the island – some of whom have not worked in eight months.

Melinda Pinder, former florist and wedding planner on Abaco.

Melinda Pinder, a Marsh Harbour resident has been volunteering with food distribution on the island since the aftermath of the storm.

She said since the shutdown of the country, the island has not been receiving as much assistance as before – a situation she attributed to the fact that international NGOs have returned to their home countries.

“It’s kind of stopped,” Pinder told Eyewitness News in a recent interview.

“Everything has stopped from coming in. We have had some local persons that have donated funds and we have been able to buy locally from the food store here, so we’ve been providing basic stuff: rice, grits, oats, canned meats and vegetables and stuff like that.”

Pinder said before they were getting items from the National Emergency Management Agency and government agencies but all of that has now stopped

“Right now we are basically depending on individual donation of persons that can assist,” she said.

Pinder said the scale and size of the food distribution now depends on whatever they receive.

“Bahamians in Nassau don’t take into consideration some Abaconians haven’t worked for eight months,” she said emphatically.

“Persons that were able to provide for their family food-wise, if they haven’t worked for eight months that’s really hurting them. …The distribution of food right now is very important.”

Dorian pounded the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama between September 1-3, claiming the lives of a confirmed 74 people.

Authorities estimate that 30,000 people and 9,000 homes were severely affected, 89 percent of the damage occurring on the Abaco Islands.

Hundreds of international NGOs flocked to provide aid to the islands in the aftermath of the storm but in the months that followed, they slowly returned home.

The World Food Programme (WFP) scaled down operations on Abaco by December 3.

The agency handled the logistics of donated food items purchased by the National Emergency Management Agency, along with other forms of aid to storm-ravaged areas.

Before their exit, officials said extensive training sessions have been conducted for several Bahamians to continue the work initiated by WFP.

Photo Credit: Abaco Hands and Feet

Photo Credit: Abaco Hands and Feet

It’s unclear how many people are currently receiving assistance, though Eyewitness News understands the number is close to 4,000 residents.

Pinder, however, has not been along in her selfless quest to help feed her fellow Abaconians.

Abaco Hands and Feet, founded by Lydia Ruth Hill, has been leading food distribution on the island since the fifth day after the storm.

Even under the COVID-19 24-hour curfew the organization has been operating under limited hours. The organization has been inundated with daily pleas from residents for much-needed food and supplies. They continue to operate with the aid of organizations including IDEA Relief, Openworld Relief, and Love Abaco.

During a National Address on Sunday, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis insisted that the National Food Committee is making preparations to ensure fair and adequate food distribution for all Bahamians and residents.

Minnis advised that 88 NGOs and private sector entities are involved in the national food effort and a national database is in development.

He said the food committee is in discussion with NGOs to underwrite a voucher program for people in need in Abaco and Grand Bahama.

“The committee is carrying out a capacity analysis of the NGOs and PSEs for a three- month window to better understand where we are and what national capacity looks like,” he added.

In the coming days and weeks, the committee is expected to provide more details on the structure of the program and how the food will be distributed.

Hurricane Season 2020

Meanwhile, residents also prepare to brace for the upcoming hurricane season – which runs from June 1 through November 30.

AccuWeather meteorologists are forecasting another busy year with at least three major hurricanes when the season officially gets underway.

However, a recent assessment led by the International Organization of Migration (IOM) has warned that there is insufficient shelter capacity for another storm on the two Dorian-ravaged islands and insists that The Bahamas is underprepared for the 2020 Hurricane Season.

Pinder, who rode out Dorian on the island, told Eyewitness News that the reality of another storm hitting Abaco is too scary to imagine given the state that many are living in on the island.

“It’s been a very slow process with recovering back to normal,” she explained.

“Many persons are still living with no roofs or roofs that are leaking. Some persons are living in tents inside of their homes because of the roof leaks and the conditions of the home.”

She noted that the island could have been much further if more aggressive steps were taken.

“It’s been very difficult,” she added. Here we are concerned about the virus but its so many other things that we are concerned about as well.

“With hurricane season right around the corner, we are living different. We are trying to adjust to living with no electricity, a lot of the times we have no running water. It’s just so many things for the persons here to deal with.

“The virus, yes it’s scary, but it’s just another addition to the list of things we are already trying to cope with.”

The same sentiments were echoed by 26-year-old Analia Lowe, another Marsh Harbour resident, who categorized the government’s handling of the situation on Abaco as neglect.

Lowe lost her job and apartment after the storm but noted that she is a lot more blessed than many others because she has a family who is able to help support her.

“I don’t feel like we were being prioritized by the government from the beginning,” she said.

“…There’s no sense of urgency. They’re going to want to say that the pandemic caused us to stop work, but it was before the pandemic. We saw no movement before the pandemic.”

Pointing to the container of dead Dorian victims still on the island, the lack of utilities, the border restrictions and curfew, and the lack of infrastructure in the event of another storm, Lowe said the government’s response has gotten progressively worse.

She added that while the government must be commended for its COVID-19 response, it feels like a slap in the face that Abaconians weren’t privy to the same level of competency.

“It’s like you know how to respond when you think something is a real emergency, so you guys  just don’t think our situation urgent.”

About Sloan Smith

Sloan Smith is a senior digital reporter at Eyewitness News, covering a diverse range of beats, from politics and crime to environment and human interest. In 2018, Sloan received a nomination for the “Leslie Higgs Feature Writer of The Year Award” from The Bahamas Press Club for her work with Eyewitness News.