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The immense logistical challenges of emergency response in the Bahamas

With the northern islands of the Bahamas leveled by Hurricane Dorian, getting to people who are in danger and transporting them out of the ruins pose immense logistical challenges. William Brangham talks to Elizabeth Riley, deputy executive director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, which is coordinating the response and assessment teams to these hard-hit areas of the Bahamas.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now our William Brangham gets another report from the region.

  • William Brangham:

    Let's find out some more about the relief efforts from government officials in the region.

    Elizabeth Riley is the deputy executive director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency. That's the agency coordinating response and assessment teams to these hard-hit areas. She joins me from the island of Barbados.

    Ms. Riley, thank you very much for being here.

    I wonder if you could just give us a sense of how things are right now.

  • Elizabeth Riley:

    Based on the input from — the reports from our team on the ground, the relief effort commenced in the two northern islands of the Bahamas that have been impacted.

    What we understand is that the Royal Caribbean cruise line is providing meals for those persons who have been impacted on Grand Bahama at this time.

  • William Brangham:

    The official death toll, we know, is still very low, but we're seeing lots of reports that people traveling around the islands are seeing victims in many, many locations.

    Is it your sense that this could still be a much more grave disaster than we know thus far?

  • Elizabeth Riley:

    I think the indications from the government of the Bahamas, specifically through the minister of health, have pointed in that direction.

    And I think, as the recovery effort continues, we will get a better sense of how many persons, unfortunately, that have lost their life in this tragedy.

  • William Brangham:

    We have also heard reports that people are having a very hard time getting out to the outer islands to try to check on missing family members.

    And some people apparently are even chartering private planes to take them out there. Is transportation still proving to be such a challenge for you?

  • Elizabeth Riley:

    What has happened is that there's been significant congestion in the airspace around both Grand Bahama and Abaco, simply because persons are anxious to find out about relatives, so they're chartering private flights to go.

    While this is well-intentioned, what it does do is to create a high level of congestion in the airspace. And unless this is regulated, it could potentially cause some constraints also in the relief efforts.

  • William Brangham:

    Is that your sense of why some NGOs are reportedly also having a hard time getting out to do their work?

  • Elizabeth Riley:

    Well, I think one of the questions that should be asked is whether the NGOs are coordinating their efforts with the government of the Bahamas, because the government of the Bahamas is in charge of the response effort.

    And it is very important for NGOs or any other entity which comes in with the good intention of supporting or assisting to touch base with, plug into and, very importantly, coordinate with the National Emergency Operations Center.

    So once they have made that connection to the National Emergency Operations Center, then all of the logistics around sequencing of support, sequencing flights or vessels, et cetera, that can be coordinated.

    If that — if actions are being undertake on the side of the national coordination efforts, it is likely that you may get some challenges in access.

  • William Brangham:

    And, lastly, what are the biggest challenges going forward from today on?

  • Elizabeth Riley:

    Well, I think the immediate issue would be really getting the immediate relief to those persons who require it.

    We know that there are a couple of areas which are still posing some challenges in terms of access. Shelter of the population is incredibly important, especially in a situation where homes have been destroyed and other areas of shelter have been destroyed in countries.

    So, the safety of persons who are now exposed is really the very immediate priority.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Elizabeth Riley, who is helping coordinate the relief efforts in the Bahamas, thank you very much.

  • Elizabeth Riley:

    You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

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