Rebuilding the Bahamas: How a hurricane blows up social divides

Why We Wrote This

How communities and countries rebuild after natural disasters raises moral questions that will become only more acute as storms intensify in the era of climate change. Who gets to rebuild? 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Homes in The Mudd, an informal settlement on Great Abaco Island, lie in ruins from the winds and storm surge of Hurricane Dorian, which lashed the Bahamas in early September.

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Life in Pigeons Peas was always tenuous. But today, the informal settlement of Haitians and Bahamians of Haitian descent is just a field of mud, rock, and weeds. After Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas, the remains of the neighborhood were bulldozed. In the middle, a Bahamian flag, tied with string to a reedy, branchless tree stands alone.

The flag could have been raised as an act of solidarity, of Bahamians coming together in shared loss. It is also easy to interpret it as a statement, of one group asserting rights over another and claiming control of land.

Hurricane Dorian exposed a current of hostility toward Haitians in Bahamian society – and provoked a reckoning in some quarters.

But the Bahamas is hardly alone in coping with the deeper effects of megastorms. Natural disasters may hit indiscriminately, but they are aggravating social divides – along class, race, ethnic, and nationalist lines – from hurricanes such as Katrina and Sandy to wildfires in California. Experts warn the potential divisions will only get worse as storms and weather-related events intensify in the years ahead. 

“This will prove to be one of the most persistent challenges for humanitarian organizations,” says Brad Kieserman of the American Red Cross. “As climate change causes storms to increase in intensity, the human toll also increases and the poorest and most vulnerable suffer the most.”

Shella Monestime’s baby boy was born in the days before Hurricane Dorian struck the Bahamas from Sept. 1 to 3. The unauthorized immigrant never had time to nest with him in the little wooden structure in her neighborhood in Marsh Harbour, on the Abaco Islands, Bahamas, that she called home.

The Category 5 storm hit no place harder than informal settlements such as Pigeon Peas, populated by Haitians like her or Bahamians of Haitian descent. It swept away their tenuously built homes and crushed others into broken heaps, the wooden planks tattered as if they were paper strips. The worst hurricane to ever hit the Bahamas, Dorian has officially taken 70 lives, but more than 200 people remain missing, many of them believed to be unauthorized immigrants. Thousands have been rendered homeless.

All that remained of Ms. Monestime’s Pigeon Peas settlement has since been bulldozed. Today it is a flat field of mud, rock, and weeds. In the middle stands a lone Bahamian flag, tied with string to a reedy, branchless tree. The flag could have been raised as an act of solidarity, of Bahamians coming together in shared loss. It is also easy to interpret it as a statement, of one group asserting rights over another and claiming control of land.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
“We just lost everything. We have no clothes, no home, no money. We have to start all over again. People died, and all they are talking about is people getting deported.” – Shella Monestime, a Haitian evacuee from the Abaco Islands, standing outside a shelter in Nassau, Bahamas, with her daughter Briana (right)

Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis has vowed that such “shantytowns” will not be rebuilt. He’s also decreed that no immigrants who are here illegally are welcome in the shelters the government is erecting for those left without homes, even though immigration status has become a desperate affair as many residents have lost documentation or were in legal limbo before the storm hit. The Minnis government has resumed deporting unauthorized Haitians affected by Dorian as well – a move condemned by international bodies such as the United Nations. 

“We just lost everything. We have no clothes, no home, no money. We have to start all over again,” says Ms. Monestime. “People died, and all they are talking about is people getting deported.”

Hurricane Dorian has exposed a current of hostility toward Haitians in Bahamian society – and provoked a reckoning in some quarters. But the Bahamas is hardly alone in coping with the deeper effects of megastorms. Natural disasters may hit indiscriminately, but they are aggravating social divides – along class, race, ethnic, and nationalist lines – from hurricanes such as Katrina and Sandy to wildfires in California. Experts warn the potential divisions will only get worse as storms and weather-related events intensify in the years ahead.

To be sure, the way communities prepare and evacuate and how they eventually rebuild depends in part on their vulnerability in the first place, as well as the resilience of local residents. But many worry that in the face of climate change, the gaps between rich and poor people will grow and the downward cycles of poverty escalate as wealthier residents are able to respond to and recover from natural disasters while poor people suffer and languish.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A man walks through an area heavily damaged by Hurricane Dorian on Great Abaco, Bahamas, which still has no electricity or running water.

Nowhere was this dynamic clearer than after Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 people across five states in 2005. In New Orleans, the television images of poor, mostly black residents stranded on rooftops or huddled in the Superdome that were beamed into living rooms crystallized the wider racial implications of such calamities, says Susan Cutter, a geographer who studies disasters at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.  

Often the inequalities that arise are hidden or invisible, she says. They are not covered by the media or are seemingly minor details of a person’s life. But they carry huge implications. Take the current wildfires in California. As Pacific Gas & Electric Co. carried out planned power outages to control the flames in October, it was the poorer residents who didn’t have access to generators to power their homes or businesses. That can result in devastating losses of income.

Karen Norris/Staff

More permanent social divisions are often created during rebuilding, as insurers and those with money get the opportunity to erect new homes. Something as simple as renting versus homeownership alters the path forward, too, since renters frequently have no insurance protection. Often the people displaced are forced to relocate permanently, even to new states or countries.

John Mutter, a Columbia University professor who wrote “The Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make the Rich Richer and the Poor Even Poorer,” says that during reconstruction the divides can be intentional. “After the cameras have gone and maybe money starts coming in, it’s a time when people will take advantage and attempt at least some social reengineering,” he says.

Katrina, the most costly storm in U.S. history, disproportionately affected African Americans. It reshaped New Orleans and accelerated gentrification, making it difficult for a lot of poor residents who had fled the city to return, many of whom lived in the traditionally black Lower Ninth Ward. Dr. Mutter sees a similar pattern in the wake of Hurricane Sandy that struck New Jersey in 2012. The wealthiest homeowners have rebuilt, with new standards, creating a more affluent and exclusive community than was previously there.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A Bahamian flag flies on a denuded tree in Pigeon Peas, a former Haitian shantytown that the government cleared after Hurricane Dorian destroyed the homes.

Yet it isn’t always easy to decide who should rebuild and what kinds of structures should go up. Cheap, overcrowded, code-breaking housing is dangerous for residents. Not rebuilding shantytowns in the low-lying areas of Marsh Harbour is sound environmentally – and many would argue morally. And yet the rebuilding process is also a time when more powerful interests – developers, wealthier residents, government agencies – can exert their control over devastated areas. “They’ll do a lot of anti-social things to the group that they don’t like and get away with it,” Dr. Mutter says.

In the Bahamas, immigration adds another layer of complexity to the divisions that arise around recovery, and many worry that the kind of social engineering that Dr. Mutter studies is already underway. “In the name of nationalism and in the name of Bahamian sovereignty, people are saying, ‘We need to remove these [Haitian] people while we can, while we have the opportunity, thanks to Dorian,’” says Christopher Curry, an associate professor of history at the University of the Bahamas in Nassau.

#BahamasStrong?

Hurricane Dorian spared few on Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands in the northern stretches of the archipelago, from the rich who own multimillion-dollar second homes to the residents squatting in makeshift settlements. Half of all buildings on these islands were destroyed. 

The hurricane bypassed the capital, Nassau, and the southern islands. Yet in Marsh Harbour in November, when the Monitor visited, there was still no electricity or running water, and roads were littered with demolished vehicles. Thousands of residents remain off the Abaco Islands, staying with family or in shelters in Nassau. Some men have started to return to rebuild, often separating from their families indefinitely. 

The Bahamas has come together to help recover. The unity born of tragedy can be felt across the islands, on church bulletin boards, on social media walls under #BahamasStrong, in soup kitchens, in the way residents loan each other cars. But not everyone is included.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A Haitian woman does laundry outside a church where she is staying after losing her home on Great Abaco in Hurricane Dorian.

The Abaco Islands are home to a significant population of unauthorized Haitians who came to work in the thriving tourist and construction industries. Not all are here illegally. Some languish in legal limbo, having submitted applications or permits that they say have been grinding through the immigration process for years.

Children born in the Bahamas to foreign parents do not get birthright citizenship, as in the United States, and some Haitians have missed the window in which they can apply for citizenship at age 18. Others have been thrust into unauthorized status post-Dorian because of a loss of documentation or work permits tied to jobs that no longer exist, revealing problems in the immigration system. 

Relief workers say the lack of papers and uncertain status prevent many from seeking assistance out of fear of arrest and deportation, and they allege repatriation is occurring without due process. Amid the cleanup, the bulldozing and constant clang of clearing, the Haitian community is in hiding. At least two groups working in the Bahamas say the government has instructed them not to help Haitians who don’t have documentation. 

“The biggest thing that I’m seeing is a need for some immigration help for the Haitian people, flat out, because they are being threatened with deportation back to a place that is essentially a war zone at the moment,” says Jana Stone, project leader here for OpenWorld Relief, a nonprofit that helps people recover from natural disasters. “So there is a very strong sense of instability as a result of that and great, great fear.” 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Haitian immigrants who lost their homes look through boxes of donations at a church.

Many unauthorized Haitians have sought help from the churches that dot the Abaco Islands. But those haven’t proved safe, either. Marc Hindi Augustin, who like thousands of other Haitians came here after the devastating earthquake in his country in 2010, says immigration officials seized two men recently without papers.

“You are empty-handed and they do that to you,” says Mr. Augustin, who has permanent residency.  

Kelly Pierre is a preacher at the International Gospel Mission, an evangelical church that ministers to Haitian immigrants and their descendants. A Bahamian of Haitian descent, he, like many people here, does not support illegal immigration. But at a moment when everything is lost, he wonders where the nation’s heart is.

“It’s not right, in the eyes of God, and in the eyes of man,” he says. “For men, if you have compassion, you must know what to do, and what not to do. And at this particular time right now, when the hurricane just passed and almost destroyed everybody ... and you begin to just put handcuffs on people and carry that person to jail just because they don’t have status, it’s not right.”

A cycle of vulnerability

Various U.N. organizations have warned the Bahamas that migrants must not be left out of the humanitarian response, and that increased vulnerability only leads to more exploitation and abuse – even more human trafficking.

But while pressure is mounting on the government here to help the most destitute, a larger problem looms for vulnerable people around the world: climate change. Brad Kieserman, vice president for disaster operations and logistics for the American Red Cross, says that societies overall today have a better understanding of the needs of indigent people in the aftermath of disasters.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Family photos lie on the ground near Pigeon Peas, a settlement that was destroyed in the hurricane.

This is in part because of improved data and tracking his group is implementing on the ground in the Bahamas to ensure that the most vulnerable receive assistance. But globally the risks facing poor people threaten to increase faster than the response. 

“As climate change causes storms to increase in intensity, the human toll also increases and the poorest and most vulnerable suffer the most,” he says in an email. “This will prove to be one of the most persistent challenges for humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross. We are seeing a new normal of heavier rainfall, higher temperatures, stronger hurricanes, and historic wildfires.”

All this could lead to a downward spiral that hurts rich and poor countries alike. Developing nations that face recurring disasters may not be able to revive, while countries such as the U.S. and members of the European Union may experience an influx of disaster migrants.

“The best example of that cycle of vulnerability is Puerto Rico,” says Dr. Cutter of the University of South Carolina. “Its population for a variety of reasons – political, economic, social – has been in decline for decades. And yet it’s in a very hazardous [position] in the hurricane area. And so it’s never able to recover.”

The chronic decline, in turn, can provoke an immigration debate – one like Dorian has done here over the Haitians. 

Tensions exposed

On trade, economics, and culture, Haiti and the Bahamas have enjoyed a shared history over hundreds of years. It wasn’t until an exodus of Haitians fleeing the dictatorships of François Duvalier and later his son, Jean-Claude, between the 1950s and 1980s that the views of Bahamians hardened over the influx of migrants. It didn’t help that the Bahamas was growing more prosperous.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Kelly Pierre, a pastor and builder who is Bahamian-Haitian, sits in the living room of his home, which withstood the storm but lost its furnishings.

In recent years, with the devastation of the 2010 Haitian earthquake and now with Dorian, tensions have escalated. “I think this storm has exposed it,” says Ava Turnquest, a local journalist. “Whereas before the conversation was sort of layered, it’s now more aggressive.”

Ms. Turnquest says some of the xenophobia that has surfaced is not representative of Bahamian society. But there is a wider perception, and fear, that immigrants from much larger and poorer Haiti could overrun the Bahamas’ young democracy. She’s at her office on a Sunday, because Prime Minister Minnis is about to give a press conference in which he announces he won’t allow any “illegals” in Abaco Islands shelters, “full stop,” he told reporters.

It’s a message that finds broad support among Bahamians. Many say there is too much need among their own to have to care for unauthorized workers from Haiti. “We know they are people, but we are poor, too,” says Perry Feaster, who is living in a tent with a dozen others in a field near Marsh Harbour. He was a scuba diver before Dorian. Now he collects scrap metal to earn money.

Mistrust only grows with a lack of good numbers. The 2010 census estimated that 11% of the Bahamas’ population was Haitian, but that was prior to the 2010 earthquake. An assessment by the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration, in 2018, put the number at 25%. Further, no one has a firm number on how many Haitians, including those born in the Bahamas, have proper documentation.

Bahamian anthropologist, poet, and playwright Nicolette Bethel says some of the fears Bahamians have about the unauthorized Haitian community are rational, but others are irrational – and uncomfortably familiar. “The kind of language that is used to talk about the ‘illegal’ population” – code for Haitian, she says – “is virtually indistinguishable from the kind of language that was used to talk about black Bahamians 40 or 50 years ago: the lack of sanitation, lack of morals and honesty, unchecked reproduction. This is a highly stratified society that has never dealt with the racism on which it was founded and just maintains the systems of oppression and changes the players.” 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
People line up to get gas for $6 a gallon at one of the only service stations open on the Abaco Islands.

When President Donald Trump shut U.S. doors to Bahamian victims of Dorian who didn’t have paperwork – saying the country had to be careful about “some very bad people and some very bad gang members and some very, very bad drug dealers” – many people hoped it would cause people here to reflect on their own views.

“When I saw what Trump said, I thought for a moment Bahamians would sit back and say, ‘We are treated like refugees, just like we treat Haitians; maybe we should pause and think,’” says Fred Smith, a human rights lawyer in the Bahamas. He was disappointed, he says.

But voices of moderation are starting to emerge. Allyson Maynard-Gibson, former attorney general of the Bahamas, wrote an opinion piece in a local newspaper calling for “safe spaces” to search for a consensus on immigration policy that could be a model.

“This is not just the Bahamas. [Rejection of migrants] is happening all over the world,” she says in an interview. “The Bahamas could be a signal to the world for how things could be better or different. ... It’s terrible, terrible, terrible. But out of this comes an opportunity to face it and to deal with it instead of sweeping it under the carpet, again.”

“It’s easy ... to just vilify one group” 

The Rt. Rev. Laish Boyd, bishop of the Anglican Diocese of the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands, called for cooler heads around the immigration debate in a formal address in October. He suggested forming an authority made up of churches, chambers of commerce, and civil society groups to deal with the issue more honestly and less emotionally.

In an interview at the diocese office in Nassau, he says the Bahamas must recognize the full contribution of Haitian immigrants to every facet of life here – not to mention the critical role they could play in rebuilding places like Marsh Harbour. “It’s easy in [this] kind of environment to just vilify one group,” he says. “Never mind we are all responsible for the circumstances surrounding illegal immigration in this country, by our failure to enforce laws, by our selectively enforcing laws, by our not establishing procedures and protocols and sticking to them.

“In this environment, let’s not jump on a scapegoat issue because we are under pressure, under strain. Let’s not vilify anybody. Let’s look at it calmly and in a balanced way.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
“In this environment, let’s not jump on a scapegoat issue because we are under pressure, under strain. Let’s not vilify anybody. Let’s look at it calmly and in a balanced way.” – The Rt. Rev. Laish Boyd, bishop of the Anglican Diocese of the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands

Jeanise Pierre would certainly welcome a more balanced view – and more help. She was living in the Mudd, another informal settlement in Marsh Harbour that was destroyed, and worked as a hotel maid. Now the single mother has been living for two months in the Kendal G.L. Isaacs National Gymnasium in Nassau, the main government-run shelter where some 600 people still remain. A hundred miles away on a recent day in Marsh Harbour, a bulldozer clears the homes that appear as heaps strewn across the Mudd. Signs of their owners poke out from the rubble – shoes, stuffed animals, curtains, a bike.

Ms. Pierre has not been able to return to see the remains of her home. “They have no plan; their only plan is to carry us all in here back to Haiti,” she says. “I lost family. They need to give us a chance.”

Her friend, Ms. Monestime, has no idea if she can ever return to Great Abaco, because if she does, she risks getting sent back to Haiti. She says she has tried to secure working papers in the past 17 years, but she’s always been told that she has to return to Haiti to apply and wait for processing. With three Bahamian-born children, she says that’s not viable.

“I can’t make the laws in this country,” she says. “But if they put me in a plane, they will put me in it alone. They will not take my children to Haiti. This is their home, their future. I will go, but they will have to keep my children.”

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