NASSAU, BAHAMAS — Some 250 Bahamians are living in limbo in the United States more than a month after the passage of deadly Hurricane Dorian, according to Bahamian Consul General in Miami Linda Mackey.
Mackey said 60 percent of those Bahamian evacuees in Florida are from Abaco, and are living week-to-week on the support of local charities.
Her comments came as Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis advised those evacuees “must now return”.
“I know that Bahamians were placed in shelters in the Florida area and I would have said repeatedly with international agencies that those Bahamians must now return because the U.S. would have given them a certain length of time,” said Minnis, when asked about the matter at a press conference at the Office of the Prime Minister.
“Many of them would be accommodated. If they’re from Abaco, they would be accommodated in the Family Relief Centres that we are constructing and similarly in Grand Bahama.
“But accommodations are being made for them to return home because they are needed to help rebuild The Bahamas.”
In an interview with Eyewitness News Online yesterday, Mackey said those Bahamians are spread across Palm Beach, Miami or Broward County, Florida.
She noted the consul meets with them every two weeks to try to provide whatever assistance is possible in the circumstances, adding the evacuees don’t have the option of living with family members in New Providence.
“They are living pretty much week to week, in as much as they can get assistance for accommodations; it’s a week to week basis,” Mackey said.
“Their biggest concern is one, how to benefit from their National Insurance, social services and then also what are their options if they came home, especially Marsh Harbour.
“Where would they go and where would their kids go to school?”
Dorian, the strongest storm to hit the northwest Bahamas, left thousands displaced and at least 65 dead.
Hundreds remain missing.
More than a month later, Grand Bahama and Abaco remain in recovery mode without electricity and potable water in severely impacted areas.
Mackey noted while school-aged children have been allowed in public schools in the cities, the evacuees are not allowed to work as they only hold U.S. visitors’ visas.
She added the evacuees have been told not to seek employment, which could “jeopardize their visa status”.
Following the deadly Category 5 storm, the White House stated Bahamian evacuees would not be granted temporary protected status (TPS), which would have allowed them to live and work in the country.
“[Customs and] Border Patrol is aware,” Mackey continued.
“They were at our first meeting. We had border patrol. We had immigration representation. We had the Red Cross. We had the Catholic Charities. We pretty much informed them in as much as possible what their options are.
“Right now, we have to clear an exit plan because time is now expiring and there’s really not much options to keep them here.
“I’m trying to find out, in as much as possible, what are their options, should they return home.
“…For them, they want to come home. But their question is still where are we going to live and where will our kids go to school.”
The consul general noted that while their visa status grants them up to six months in the country, some of those individuals were only given between three weeks and three months.
“It was on a case-by-case basis,” Mackey said.
The consul recently held a meeting with the evacuees at the West Palm Beach office of the Red Cross.
Jennifer Broden Durrant, executive director of the Greater Palm Beach and Martin Chapter of the American Red Cross, described the mood of that meeting as dubious.
“[There was] a lot of uncertainty, a lot of people hoping that they’ve come this far and they are not going to be let down, and things are going to get better,” she said.
“People, they just don’t know what their options are.”
Durrant told Eyewitness News Online the organization began providing aid to Bahamian evacuees when they disembarked cruise ships that went to the islands carrying supplies.
She said the Red Cross along with the Palm Beach county housed nearly 60 families at a shelter for two nights.
Catholic Charities was then able to work with a donor who paid for hotel stays for some of those evacuees who did not have relatives in the area, she said.
“When we had the group come the other day [for the meeting], originally it was something the Catholic Charities asked us to set up, so we were anticipating the families the Catholic Charities had been working with coming,” Durrant continued.
“But there were so many other families and individuals that are staying with families or friends, or some newer organizations, grassroots efforts that have formed out of this, that have been sheltering people, [in attendance].”
Durrant said during that meeting, “I got the sense that most people, at some point, they want to return home, they just don’t know what’s happening or what there is to return home to.
“…The people, they’re concerned. Their future is very uncertain, here or there.”
According to the Palm Beach Post, Bill Johnson, Palm Beach County emergency services director, said the temporary shelter cost the county $409,000 to set up and run, but most assistance now relies on donations from the county’s Long-Term Recovery Coalition, which includes groups like Catholic Charities, United Way and the Red Cross.
PM says come home
Yesterday, Minnis addressed evacuees during a press conference to announce recovery and restoration efforts on Abaco.
The government has announced it will spend approximately $6.4 million on temporary housing for displaced Hurricane Dorian victims near Spring City, Abaco.
The Family Relief Centre covers 12 acres of land, and will feature 250 dome structures that includes plumbing, drainage, a sewer system, and electricity.
Minnis said the center will be in place for two years until individuals and families move into permanent housing.
He added that public schools on the island are expected to reopen in January.