By Jeremy Deaton & Shravya Jain
In September 2019, Hurricane Dorian tore through the Bahamas, killing 70 people and inflicting billions in damages. While nearby Florida escaped mostly unscathed, those with deep ties to the Bahamas felt a well of heartache after the storm. In Miami, the Black diaspora marshaled a massive response to the climate disaster. This is how they did it.
This oral history is drawn from interviews with Valencia Gunder, founder and president of The Smile Trust, Francesca Menes, founder and chief community engager of CommUnity Strategies, Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Democratic member of the Florida House of Representatives, and Tameka Hobbs, associate provost at Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens.
Two days after, myself, Rep. Kionne McGhee, and some other community leaders, we flew over — one, to take immediate aid to the Bahamas, but two, to get a look at the damage.
You would have thought a bomb had gone off. Tears came to my eyes instantly, because you saw individuals living in their cars. You saw abandoned cars at the airport. You saw people sleeping on the street.
At that time, it looked like a third-world country.
After I saw the devastation, I came back and knew that it was time to get to work to figure out the best way to help our neighbors. So I made contact with those I knew could help. I reached out to Senator [Marco] Rubio. I started reaching out to some other community leaders like Valencia [Gunder] and others.
For 15 days, in this big parking lot, we collected donations. We had over 750 volunteers come out. We ended up moving supplies to the Bahamas in shipping containers. We connected with grassroots organizations in the Bahamas, like the Kiwanis Club and the NAACP and some other groups and churches. We were able to have a direct connection to get food and water and other medical supplies directly to the people of the Bahamas.
Some of these volunteers were out there the entire 15 days, taking off work to be out there. Nobody talked about anything else other than the people of the Bahamas.
We had already set up a community emergency operations center to prepare for a storm here at home. And so it was more about shifting the operation to the issues in the Bahamas.
The 750 people, those were the volunteers. But we had way more people that came and donated. We were buying food. We were buying generators. We were buying all this other stuff. One of our partners, [Dr. Armen Henderson], is a medical physician at the University of Miami and was able to tap into all of these different companies that donated medical equipment.
For weeks, we all worked. We gathered thousands of items. We partnered with churches and asked churches to make announcements in their Sunday services.
I had no issues with getting it out of the country. I didn’t have to pay any customs fees. But once it got to the Bahamas, I had to pay for each container, and I had to pay for every single thing. I fit four containers on two cargo planes, and each one of them — to get them out of the port and to the community — ran me about $6,000 dollars. It was a lot of money.
They sent me videos and pictures of people tending the trucks, taking the stuff off the trucks, getting handed the stuff — mothers with their kids getting stuff. Just to see people sitting at the truck and volunteers giving them stuff in the Bahamas brought me to tears. We accomplished it.
Valencia actually was scheduled to be our convocation speaker [at Florida Memorial University], and we had to delay that program because of the hurricane. When we re-engaged her, she had already gone into hurricane relief mode, as she is known to do, but we began to talk to her about the need that we had here on campus.
We had [156 students] who were from the Bahamas. And for many of them, their parents lost homes. Their parents lost jobs.
I had a student. She was in desperate need. She came by my office several times, and so I just sent Valencia a text saying, “Hey, if there’s anything that you can do — any resources, any connections that can help this student — we really could use it,” because we were approaching a deadline by which she had to have payments on the record to be allowed to remain in school. Within 24 hours, [Valencia] came back, with funds in hand and was able to help us keep that student in school.
The need is ongoing. This is just the first wave. I’ve spoken to students whose parents are unemployed, whose homes were destroyed, and they don’t know how they’re going to continue to further their education.
We were trying to work with the federal government, with Senator Rubio’s office, to try to get [Bahamian refugees] temporary visas here. The federal government gave them six months to be here.
They were very grateful. They were very thankful. But they did want to go back home.
Because of our proximity to the airport, we were allowing people to drop items here [at Florida Memorial University], and then we would get those shipped over to the [Miami-Opa Locka Executive Airport].
Because our students were in direct communication with their families, they were able to tell us exactly what the need was. I think very early on, the general rule of thumb was, “Don’t bring clothing.” And what our students told us was, yes, do bring clothing, because many people lost everything they had. They were walking around with only the clothes on their back. And so we were able to redirect and say that, yes, indeed we do these clothes to be sent over.
When you look at the bigger picture, Black Caribbean nations don’t get responded to like other places. After Hurricane Irma, everybody was super-focused on Puerto Rico, but we had all of these other islands that also needed help. I’m not saying the people of Puerto Rico didn’t need help, because they needed it. But you know, sometimes the response can be inequitable.
It was all hands on deck for Puerto Rico, but when Haiti went through what they went through, there were no hands on deck, and so our thinking was that the same thing was going to happen for the Bahamas. So we said, “We know we are those descendants. We are that diaspora, and we will show up even if they won’t.”
A lot of people don’t know the history of Miami. It was the Bahamians who actually came to build Miami — literally. Because of that, Miami has a lot of Bahamian flavor to it.
We had to respond to the Bahamas. We said, “We have to do it, and we have to do it now.” Because I think most Miamians, especially native Miamians, felt obligated to do so, because there wouldn’t be a Miami without the Bahamas.
Everybody from the Latinx community to the Haitian community to the Black community to the Cuban community — everybody stepped up to help the people of the Bahamas this past year. It was a lot of work — a lot of work and long hours.
The support was enormous. It was amazing to see.