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After Dorian, Bahamas’ path to recovery is obscured by uncertainty

More than five weeks since Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas, the complexities of the storm and the recovery are in some ways just beginning to reveal themselves. But scientists also say the long game for the Bahamas is very uncertain, just as the certainty grows linking climate change and a greater frequency of strong hurricanes. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's been five-and-a-half weeks since Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas. The complexities of the storm and the recovery are in some ways just beginning to reveal themselves.

    Science correspondent Miles O'Brien went to the Bahamas for the weather mapping app MyRadar.com. He reports on the resiliency of the Bahamian people and what research tells us about the links between climate change and the increasing ferocity of hurricanes.

    It's the latest in our science series, Leading Edge.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    At the Rand Memorial Hospital in Freeport, the damage is not instantly obvious, and yet it is utterly complete.

    The prognosis for the 59-year-old facility is uncertain, little more than a month after Hurricane Dorian arrived.

  • Sharon Williams:

    Almost immediately, the whole hospital was inundated with water.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Four to six feet of water. Health services administrator Sharon Williams has worked here for nearly 40 years. She walked me through the one-story facility, wards, the intensive care unit, and the recently upgraded operating suite, all ruined by the saltwater flood.

    Does it break your heart to see all of these?

  • Sharon Williams:

    Very much so. It is heartbreaking. It is very much heart-wrenching. This has been our second home for years.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It could have been so much worse. On the day Dorian hit, there were more than 200 patients here, 28 of them bedridden. But Sharon Williams had a plan. Each staffer was assigned a handful of patients, charged with getting them out, quickly and safely.

  • Sharon Williams:

    Nobody panicked. No matter the fear they were feeling, everybody was contained and calm, so the process was orderly.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Were you scared?

  • Sharon Williams:

    Yes. I can tell you there was a bit of fear. If you don't have some fear to make you second-guess sometime, then you make stupid mistakes

  • Miles O’Brien:

    And you didn't lose a patient?

  • Sharon Williams:

    And I didn't lose a patient and we didn't lose a staff during that time.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Right now, they are providing care here, thanks to help from USAID and relief organizations like Samaritan's Purse and the International Medical Corps.

    Its volunteer doctors and nurses are taking patients in tents at the site of a destroyed clinic 30 miles away in High Rock. Here, the acute phase of open wounds and broken bones has evolved into the chronic concerns of interrupted prescription medications and mental health.

    This woman collapsed after discovering some clothing that belonged to her two grandchildren who were swept away in the storm.

    Physician Scott Lillibridge is the medical coordinator.

  • Scott Lillibridge:

    We're trying to get ahead of the chronic disease cycle of diabetes and hypertension right now.

    And if you focus only on the acute phase, you're going to miss all these layers that need to happen. What I am really worried about at this point is that we keep our eye on the long game.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Scientists say the long game for the Bahamas as a whole is also very uncertain, as the certainty grows linking climate change and a greater frequency of strong hurricanes.

    Kerry Emanuel is a professor of atmospheric science at MIT.

  • Kerry Emanuel:

    What we're already seeing is a greater incidence of the really strong hurricanes, just more strong storms, and more rain, more flooding from tropical cyclones, both freshwater, because there's more rain, and the saltwater from the storm surge because of two things. The storms are stronger and the sea levels are coming up.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The Bahamas archipelago, about 700 islands and 2,400 cays stretching 760 miles from Florida to Cuba, sits low in the water, mostly just a few feet above sea level.

  • Kerry Emanuel:

    You raise sea level by half-a-foot, it's a big deal. You can get a lot more flooding for the same storm than if the sea level back where it was 100 years ago.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Are we at a point where we have to think about whether the Bahamas is an unsustainable place to continue living in?

  • Kerry Emanuel:

    Unfortunately. And that's actually happening in the Western Pacific.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    These island nations are cannon fodder in the relentless invasion spurred by climate change, the first casualties in a war they didn't start.

  • Hubert Minnis:

    When one storm can obliterate an island state or a number of states in one hurricane season, how will we survive?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis clearly had this on his mind when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly on September 27.

  • Hubert Minnis:

    I add my urgent plea to the cries and voices of many other leaders, urging the nations of the world here assembled to treat the global climate emergency as the greatest challenge facing humanity.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Mr. Minnis and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres toured the largest shelter for Dorian evacuees in a Nassau gymnasium two weeks earlier.

    Many of the 700 or so people here are undocumented immigrants from Haiti, squatters, living on Abaco Island in what was a slum called the Mudd, now a flattened field of debris.

    Nevertheless, Shella Monestime is among those longing to return to Marsh Harbour.

  • Shella Monestime:

    Because that's where you used to live. So, automatically, you want to go back. Home is home. Home is home.

    But, to me, I really don't want to be in there. With this, my young baby, I really don't want to be there. But I ain't got no choice to be in there, because nowhere else to go.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Without deeds or papers, for them, the path back to Abaco is littered with obstacles. Indeed, the government is threatening deportation.

    They are refugees, first from oppressive politics and poverty, and now perhaps from the force of nature itself.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien in the Bahamas.

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