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Hurricane Response in Bahamas is Environmental Racism

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On September 9, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) ordered 103 Bahamian evacuees to get off a ferry scheduled for Florida if they did not have visas, according to reporter Brian Entin. Bahamians are required to have either pre-clearance from US facilities in Nassau and Freeport or a visa in order to enter the US. However, communication by acting CBP commissioner Mark Morgan announced that the US would let in Bahamians, stating, “this is a humanitarian mission […] If your life is in jeopardy and you’re in the Bahamas […] You’re going to be allowed to come to the United States, whether you have travel documents or not.” However, Trump later said to journalists that every Bahamian would need proper documentation, and made racist statements claiming that some evacuees were “very bad people.” The last-minute miscommunication and conflicting statements between CBP officials and Trump on the entry policy within the US left hundreds of evacuees stranded on the island of Nassau, while their home islands were gravely affected by Hurricane Dorian. Further, CBP’s expectations that residents would be able to gather official documents during a hurricane are unrealistic, and bipartisan calls to suspend all visa requirements during the crisis have been ignored by the US government. The lack of mainstream coverage and the mismanagement of CBP and disaster relief organizations come as a result of the hurricane mainly affecting islands like the Abacos and Grand Bahama, which are not typically tourist locations. The Bahamas, which were formerly a British colony and became an independent country within the Commonwealth in 1973, is more than its tourism. It is comprised of almost 700 islands, 30 of which are inhabited.

The news coverage and rhetoric around Hurricane Dorian have been largely focused on the impact on the tourism industry, rather than on human lives and the material loss for the inhabitants of the islands. Even within the media’s misguided discussion of the country’s economy, the coverage remains classist. More than 70,000 Abacoans and Grand Bahamians who commute to Nassau, where they largely work on cruise ships or in the homes of the rich, are now displaced from their homes. This attention to tourism focuses on the wealthy foreign tourists, rather than on the racialized working class, whose labour upholds the tourism industry.

Hurricane Dorian is a direct manifestation of the climate crisis. However, the devastation caused by the hurricane is rarely linked to a larger discussion on who is impacted first and most severely by climate change. Natural disasters in the Caribbean must be contextualized and addressed as a result of environmental racism. While the US leads the world in greenhouse gas emissions, it is racialized populations who are primarily affected by “natural disasters,” and who are denied adequate disaster management response. Racialized climate refugees are then denied entry in countries like the US and criminalized should they manage to enter.

Great Abaco, one of the main islands hit by the hurricane, has large informal housing communities where Haitian refugees, who fled from the 2010 earthquake, have settled. Those housing communities are now gone as a result of the category five hurricane. “Everybody says, ‘Leave.’ Leave and go where?” said Jackson Blatch, one of the 20,000 residents of Great Abaco living in informal housing. With over 60,000 people in need of food and water, the Abacos and Grand Bahama are now left unlivable for thousands of Haitian refugees, who were already victims of environmental racism.

It will cost an estimated seven billion dollars to repair the damage in the Bahamas caused by Hurricane Dorian. Instead of providing aid to Grand Bahama and the Abacos, some people are encouraging tourism in Nassau as a means of offering support, while totally dismissing the crisis in Great Abaco and Grand Bahama. This means of “support” does not include resources that help communities in the Abacos or Grand Bahamas. Informal housing communities were already fighting for the state to fund the construction of permanent housing even before the hurricane’s damage. At the same time, the government was actively tearing down informal settlements and surveilling inhabitants with drone technology to prevent them from building new necessary housing. Making these islands livable again will take much more than tourism campaigns which bolster areas that mostly serve wealthy vacationers, not permanent residents. According to the UN, there are several communities that already do not have access to clean drinking water or sanitation. Effects of an oil spill, reported to have reached over 70-80 kilometers into the open ocean, render any remaining clean water unusable, and leave citizens needing both food and water assistance. Getting these islands back to a livable state will take immense combined efforts to rebuild homes and infrastructure, provide basic necessities, and clean up the environmental disasters in the hurricane’s wake. The burden of these efforts should not just fall on countries affected by the hurricane, but should include international aid, especially from former colonial countries.

We must reorient how we talk about climate change, recognizing that it disproportionately affects racialized populations and former colonies. We can support the Bahamas by donating to local funds such as the National Association of the Bahamas, and the Bahamas Red Cross.