Five Years Later: Hurricane Dorian’s Indelible Mark (Part One)

Five Years Later: Hurricane Dorian’s Indelible Mark (Part One)

Rebuilding Equitably: Addressing Climate Justice in the Aftermath of Hurricane Dorian

Shervante Nixon’s son, Bendicion Houston; Shervante Nixon, her mother, Sherry Nixon; and her brother, Perdallion Nixon on the boat that took them from Abaco to New Providence back in September 2019.

There’s an emotional strain and reservation to a usually bubbly Shervante Nixon. It was a big ask to encourage the mother of one to recount one of the most horrific experiences in her life. That fear, however, was overshadowed by her desire to use her story to help galvanize others to realize the tangible effects of climate change and the ongoing fallout after Hurricane Dorian. Still, the task was daunting. 

The storm left an indelible mark on the Bahamian people, particularly those who call or once called the northern islands of The Abacos and Grand Bahama home. 

For thousands of Bahamian citizens and residents like Nixon, Hurricane Dorian will forever be etched in their minds—a chapter revisited with every dark cloud or heavy storm.

“It’s not the same,” she admitted. “Once the rain starts and that breeze picks up too much, it brings back all those memories and has you instantly on alert and thinking to yourself, ‘ok, let me prepare myself mentally and be on guard. Let me see if the rain is picking up or getting worse.’” 

As the 2024 Atlantic Hurricane season kicks off this Saturday, Nixon and others who lived through Dorian are experiencing a mix of emotions, with anxiety being the dominant feeling.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts that 17–25 storms will be named this upcoming season, which kicks off this week. Of that number, 8–13 are expected to develop into hurricanes, while 4–7 are predicted to reach category 3 or higher. 

Nixon is prepared. 

“We still don’t have everything we need, but what we do have we keep in a protected space, including our life jackets, cuz you know, you could be the best swimmer, and that surge could pull you or drag you, make you tired, and you still fail against that,” she explained. “That’s how I feel.”

The Storm

On August 24, 2019, a weather system that would become one of the most devastating hurricanes in history began as Tropical Depression Five in the Atlantic Ocean. Within days, it intensified into Tropical Storm Dorian and was later classified as a Category 5 hurricane by the National Hurricane Center. On September 1, Hurricane Dorian made its first landfall on Great Abaco Island in The Bahamas, unleashing catastrophic winds, storm surges, and torrential rain. The destruction was unprecedented, marking Dorian as the most intense tropical cyclone on record to strike the country.

Hurricane Dorian’s formation and rapid intensification were alarming. By the time it reached The Bahamas, Dorian had achieved maximum sustained winds of 185 mph, with gusts exceeding 220 mph. The hurricane lingered over the islands for more than 24 hours, causing widespread devastation. The eastern side of Abaco and its cays bore the brunt of Dorian’s fury, experiencing severe hurricane-force winds, massive storm surges, and extensive flooding. The trajectory of the hurricane ensured that both the central and northern parts of the island were profoundly impacted.

“We had never experienced anything like that before; we didn’t know if to run or to stay put,” said Nixon. “Even with us trying to run, it was impossible. The water was just so high. We couldn’t drive out, swim out. I know we were able to survive because we decided to stay. Had we actually moved, we would not have made it.”

The Aftermath

Unsure of what they would encounter when the storm moved on, Nixon and her family stayed put for a day to ensure the storm was truly gone before venturing out. The water, however, had other plans. 

“The car was totaled because the water level had risen over it and got into an engine. We tried to call for assistance, for help. There was no signal and no way of contacting someone. 

“There was no rescue in the south. All the rescue was central, in Marsh Harbour but there was now a big body of water that separated the south from central.”

As a means of escape, Nixon and her family hitched a ride on a truck travelling towards Marsh Harbour the next day. 

“It was a rough ride. It was a tough ride. It was a scary ride because the water was still so high. We saw cars still underwater, bodies floating by and we were beginning to get a sense of what actually happened. 

Shervante Nixon and her son, Bendicion Houston.

“During the storm, you only have time to think about the people next to you. For me that was my mother, my brother, and my son. But to now realise that ‘Oh my God, we all went through this storm. What did somebody else go through? Did everyone make it out? Are we the only ones trying to get to Marsh Harbour?’ 

“And then you see bodies floating in the water, you’re now looking to see if you might know this person or that person. I had to make sure my son’s eyes stayed closed. I didn’t want him to see any of that. I didn’t want any of that to be a memory for him. I saw it though. There was no rescue for us in the south.” 

Hurricane Dorian left The Bahamas in ruins. Abaco and Grand Bahama were the most affected areas, with Abaco suffering 87 percent of the total damage. The estimated damage across The Bahamas amounted to USD $2.5 billion, with the majority being private losses. Homes were flattened, infrastructure was destroyed, and entire communities were displaced. 

“The home that we were staying in in Marsh [Harbour] was completely demolished,” she recounted. “It was like Godzilla had come to the island and just stomped on everything like it was paper. Every piece of that property was destroyed.”

The social sector experienced significant losses, with housing alone accounting for 93 percent of the damage. The education and health sectors also suffered, although to a lesser extent, highlighting the comprehensive nature of the destruction.

Immediate Response and Challenges 

In the wake of the storm, immediate relief efforts were crucial. The Bahamian government, supported by international agencies and non-governmental organisations, launched extensive rescue and relief operations. However, the challenges were immense. Access to the most affected areas was hampered by debris and floodwaters. Communication lines were down, complicating coordination efforts. Despite these obstacles, volunteers and emergency responders worked tirelessly to reach survivors, provide medical care, and distribute essential supplies.

One notable effort was the deployment of volunteers trained by the Bahamas Red Cross Society to provide counselling and support to those evacuated to New Providence. This service, reaching 782 individuals, underscored the importance of addressing the mental health needs of survivors amidst the physical recovery efforts. 

For Nixon and others, however, the distribution of aid was not equal.

“After the storm, we had a lot of organizations try to reach out, but the good always suffers for the bad,” she explained. “I ga put it that way because there were a lot of people who did not suffer in the storm, that did come from Abaco or had been living in Nassau for a while and they used that as an opportunity to gain certain things that were being given out in Nassau. You had people getting benefits, and they had not experienced Dorian at all. 

“We still have people here who were not helped. I know my family was not helped at all. Not a dime. Everything we have is through health, strength and the Lord.”

Systemic Issues Exacerbating the Impact

The hurricane also highlighted systemic issues that exacerbated its impact. Inadequate infrastructure, insufficient emergency preparedness, and limited access to resources left many communities more vulnerable to the storm’s effects. 

Hurricane Dorian’s devastation exposed deep-rooted inequalities within the affected regions. Vulnerable communities, including low-income families and minority groups, were disproportionately impacted by the storm. These communities often resided in less sturdy housing and lacked the resources to evacuate or adequately prepare for the hurricane. The destruction of homes and livelihoods hit these groups hardest, compounding pre-existing socio-economic challenges.

For climate risk management consultant Kelli Armstrong, following proper building codes is a crucial step to helping ensure Bahamians can weather future storms. 

“Let’s be real, Dorian was a super storm, but in a lot of places where infrastructure suffered a lot of damage and loss, those structures were not up to code, and so it’s put a heightened awareness on the need for us to appreciate the importance of getting our homes constructed right, using the proper materials, being properly designed, being properly inspected. I know sometimes in the family islands where you don’t necessarily have a lot of the human resources required to do those things in a timely manner, some things may be overlooked, but that was a particular vulnerability that was exposed and it’s something we cannot afford to have happen again.”

The lack of resilient housing and infrastructure meant that the physical destruction was more extensive and the recovery more challenging. Addressing these systemic issues is crucial for ensuring that future disasters do not have similarly devastating consequences.

The Path to Recovery

As the immediate relief phase transitions into long-term recovery, the focus must shift to rebuilding with resilience and equity. The Bahamian government, along with international partners, has outlined a comprehensive plan for reconstruction. This plan emphasizes restoring functionality to existing infrastructure, normalizing productive activities, and incorporating climate resilience into rebuilding efforts.

“Honestly, the long-term effects of Dorian have not even been fully realized,” noted Armstrong. There are a lot of long-term impacts that we will continue to discover over time as we continue to monitor the environment, which is why having a baseline environmental assessment is so crucial. We need to understand what resources we have and how they behave under normal conditions so that when we have extreme events, we can assess how they behave afterwards.”

Armstrong’s sentiments are echoed in the initial assessment of the effects and impact of Dorian conducted by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in conjunction with the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and The Caribbean (UN ECLAC) and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). The assessment calls for a five-pillar recommendation for a resilient recovery.

Recommendations for resilient reconstruction include improving risk identification, enhancing risk reduction measures, and increasing preparedness for future disasters. Financial protection and resilient recovery strategies are also essential components of this plan, ensuring that reconstruction efforts are sustainable and inclusive.

Conclusion

Hurricane Dorian’s impact on The Bahamas was a stark reminder of the power of nature and the vulnerabilities of human societies. The immediate response highlighted the heroism of emergency responders and the resilience of affected communities. However, the disproportionate impact on vulnerable populations and the systemic issues laid bare by the storm underscores the need for a climate justice approach in disaster response and recovery. As the country rebuilds, the focus on equity and resilience will be crucial in ensuring that all communities can withstand and recover from future climate-related disasters.

“For me, I can’t really think about it,” said an exhausted Nixon. “Realizing that many family members and friends passed away, that’s the true mental (bleep) up. Thinking about what they went through before dying. What did they have to endure? How did they try to save themselves and what went wrong? 

“There are a lot of friends that I will never see again. I never got to say goodbye to them.” 

“The day before the Dorian everyone was just happy, going to the store, talking to one another, cracking jokes. Everyone was drinking and hanging out. We honestly thought it was just gonna be another storm that would just pass on by and we could ‘party’ while the eye of the storm was there… but, to realize, that was not the case. That the person you spoke to the day before was no longer here, and to know the pain and the suffering that they probably went through. You know it took three days and that was it. It’s like wow, what do you do now?”

Written by: Vanessa Lynn Clarke

This story was published with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture of Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.