It’s been two months since Hurricane Dorian struck The Bahamas. In Abaco, my cousin and her family swam to my uncle’s house when the wind took her roof. In Grand Bahama, my best friend’s family spent two days in a second-floor bedroom of their home as the sea climbed the first landing. Leviathan waves decimated coastlines and winds tossed cars and houses out like cast nets into oblivion. And then there are those who didn’t make it.
For a short while, the world peered through television and smartphone screens into the aftermath of one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic, but, just like the storm, the collective concern and interest of the global community dissipated. This is natural: you only look through your neighbour’s window when you hear a commotion inside. I want to tell you what happens after the aftermath. I need to tell you because this may only be the beginning.
‘Our proof lies in Irma’s endless deluge, fuelled by warming waters; in the ancient trees and electrical poles Matthew cleaved, winds strengthened by rising temperatures’
In the last decade, the Bahamas has suffered at least five major hurricanes: Hurricane Irene (2011), Sandy (2012), Joaquin (2015), Matthew (2016), Irma (2017), and now Dorian. Of course, hurricanes come with the territory, but while residents of continental states have the option to evacuate, there are no roads to safety in the Caribbean, not when you live on flat terrain surrounded by water and the next district may just as well end up in the monster’s path. Even if another island is spared a direct hit, the effects of the storm are widespread. I was in New Providence during Dorian, where conditions never escalated beyond ‘Category One’, and yet even here we were submerged in water almost three-feet deep. We are unwitting victims of a larger global issue beyond our control.
Every year, hurricanes increase in ferocity, bringing stronger winds, higher storm surges, and more rain. For Bahamians—and the Caribbean at large—the legitimacy of climate change is not a debate. Our proof lies in Irma’s endless deluge, fuelled by warming waters; in the ancient trees and electrical poles Matthew cleaved, winds strengthened by rising temperatures; in the 18-23 foot storm surge that Joaquin and Dorian brought, elevated by glacial melting. Then we look at the data. Catastrophic storms are becoming more frequent. To disregard 28 major hurricanes in the region in just 10 years as ‘coincidence’ is wilful ignorance. What can developing nations do when they are threatened with three cataclysmic storms a year? There is no escape from the effects of climate change for us, and as storms become more incessant and destructive, we as small island nations suffer not only from immediate devastation but also from, more grievously, the long-term economic consequences.
‘Teachers, doctors, and public service workers are rioting, but how can they be paid when the money is needed elsewhere?’
The Bahamas is not a wealthy country. With a GDP of $12 billion and a national debt of nearly $9 billion: we did not need this hurricane. We were still recouping after Joaquin, Matthew, and Irma, which collectively incurred $915 million in damages; Hurricane Dorian has incurred $7 billion. Two of our three strongest economic pillars, tourism and fisheries, have been damaged. Nearly 70,000 are homeless and countless more are without jobs. But the financial implications go even deeper.
For developing nations, natural disasters detract from progress. Infrastructure must be repaired. Schools and medical centres must be rebuilt. Public amenities must be restored—and these projects drain money away from other national priorities. Dorian ripples throughout the country as it downs the engines of our economy, however temporarily. Electricity fees have risen to supplement the funds needed to reinstate facilities lost. Public workers and government contractors are likely not to be paid for their services as the government allocates those payments to hurricane relief. Teachers, doctors, and public service workers are rioting, but how can they be paid when the money is needed elsewhere? It is not fair, but it is the sad reality of our situation as a developing nation.
Finally, the cruellest irony of all: with hurricanes bombarding the country with increasing regularity, will developers risk investing in the islands? Is it safe to build hotels here? Will tourists be discouraged from visiting? The Bahamas’ primary industry is tourism, but with media coverage touting the destruction of the country post-Dorian, it has been estimated that we can expect a 10% drop in inbound tourists. People are worried, and with good reason.
The Bahamas is resilient. We’re accustomed to rebounding from hurricanes, but as temperatures rise and the economy droops, we have to admit the injustice of our situation. 65 people are dead. Official reports claim that 282 people are still missing. Rumours suggest it’s higher. We are in a precarious position as our government and people struggle against a relentless force beyond our control. But what is most frightening is not the immense task of rebuilding once again. Our biggest fear now is whether or not Dorian was only the beginning.
Alexia Tolas is a Bahamian Writer and Caribbean regional winner of the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.