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What the Hurricane Dorian-ravaged Bahamas tells us about climate change, poverty

The storm’s devastation highlights a risk public health experts have long warned about.

When Hurricane Dorian hit the northern Bahamas, it brought the force of 185 mph sustained winds and a storm surge almost the height of a two-story building that flattened and flooded homes, leaving thousands of people fleeing for safety — if they could escape at all.

In some of the poorest neighborhoods, there was no safe haven to be found.

The devastation was so widespread across Great Abaco and Grand Bahama islands that recovery crews were only beginning to get into many areas more than a week later and only a few dozen bodies had been formally counted. The thousands of people unaccounted for and the descriptions of bodies amid the debris suggested a far higher death toll.

Emergency response officials estimated 4,000 people remained on Great Abaco, where living conditions, including lack of food, running water and electricity, were becoming increasingly dire.

Homes lay in ruins one week after Hurricane Dorian hit The Mudd neighborhood, in the Marsh Harbor area of Abaco, Bahamas, on Monday.
Homes lay in ruins one week after Hurricane Dorian hit The Mudd neighborhood, in the Marsh Harbor area of Abaco, Bahamas, on Monday. [ FERNANDO LLANO | AP ]

Many of the missing were from low-lying shantytowns where thousands of Haitian migrants lived in rough-hewn wooden structures that were flattened by the storm.

RELATED STORY: Long scorned in the Bahamas, Haitians living there fear what comes next after Dorian

“It looked like a bomb just exploded,” said Dorval Darlier, chargé d’affaires of the Haitian Embassy in Nassau, who toured what remained of a neighborhood known as The Mudd and other shantytowns on Great Abaco island where an estimated 3,500 Haitian migrants lived before the storm. “It is completely destroyed. Not even a piece of wood stands up in The Mudd. If someone (was) not evacuated, they have to be dead.”

The storm's devastation in the Bahamas highlights a risk public health experts have long warned about: climate change will hit the most vulnerable populations hardest, particularly the poor, but also the elderly and women, who often are responsible for caring for others. Those with the fewest means often live in the most vulnerable areas, and they are the least able to afford to evacuate and resettle.

Human rights advocates blamed the government for not doing more to help people living in the Bahamas' shantytowns.

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"They were predicting right on the dot the sea level rise, they could have called an emergency meeting of parliament or of the cabinet and they could have instituted mandatory evacuation and hundreds and hundreds of those people would be saved," Joseph Darville, vice president of Rights Bahamas, said. "It is a catastrophe beyond measure."

While Bahamian officials did visit The Mudd prior to the storm and urged residents to evacuate, many people still did not leave, perhaps because they had nowhere to go or because they were living in the Bahamas illegally, Darlier said.

"What I have heard is they said they are afraid of being arrested, some of them are not legal," Darlier said.

Why women face greater vulnerability

Housing, immigration status and the means to leave are all examples of how vulnerable communities are more heavily impacted by extreme weather events that are becoming more frequent and more severe as a result of climate change.

It’s a trend that will only continue to worsen as global temperatures rise, according to a recent United Nations report looking at the future impacts of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, a level nations agreed under the Paris climate agreement to try not to exceed to avoid worsening risks.

Women, as well as the children and elderly they care for, are some of the most vulnerable members of society, according to a report by the United Nations Development Program. The impacts are already being “magnified” in the Caribbean where small island nations are hit by repeated storms according to the report.

Part of the challenge is the “physicality” of surviving the storm itself said Lisa Benjamin a native Bahamian who teaches International Climate Change Law and Environmental Justice at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore.

“We have heard stories of a number of young children who have basically been ripped from the arms of their mothers through storm surges or trying to evacuate and have died,” Benjamin said of Hurricane Dorian.

RELATED STORY: Hurricane Dorian forecasting shows how models have improved since Floyd in 1999

Daisy Cartwright of Freeport, on Grand Bahama Island, was carried away by the storm as she tried to help her granddaughter to safety.

"The water came up so high they decided they had to go up on the top of the roof," Cartwright's nephew Greg Smith, also of Freeport, said of his aunt Daisy. "In the process of doing that, she had gotten up on the roof, and they were handing one of her grandchildren to her. She lost her grip and ended up falling into the water. The tide was so strong, it pulled her away."

Personal items and debris lay scattered in the extensive damage and destruction in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, in The Mudd, Great Abaco, Bahamas, on Sept. 5.
Personal items and debris lay scattered in the extensive damage and destruction in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, in The Mudd, Great Abaco, Bahamas, on Sept. 5. [ GONZALO GAUDENZI | AP ]

As recovery efforts begin, women will face additional challenges, Benjamin said.

"You don't think about it, but after the storm, women, with schools that are closed, they have to look after their children, so they are not able to go back to work and a lot of the work that is available after these storms is physical, manual labor, which often employs men," she said.

‘A huge issue of climate justice’

As hurricane activity increases, small island nations in the region are becoming increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change that they did little to cause.

The Bahamas’ contribution to global greenhouse emissions is 0.01 percent of all emissions worldwide, yet the country is facing increasing risks that come with sea level rise, warming waters and intensifying storms that can be exacerbated by global warming.

RELATED STORY: Hurricane Dorian’s devastation in the Bahamas hits home for Tampa Bay-based relatives

"This is a huge issue of climate justice," Benjamin said. "We are suffering the devastating impacts of this which are existential and we are not the cause of it."

With 80 percent of its land within 3 feet of sea level — Dorian’s storm surge was 18 to 23 feet — it’s unclear how the island nation can survive rising seas and increasingly frequent and increasingly devastating storms.

“While we have very vulnerable subgroups within the country, the country itself is highly vulnerable,” Benjamin said. “We need action from developed countries. We need action from large developing countries as well. Otherwise, this pattern will just replicate, intensify and worsen.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.