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US government to spend another $4 million on Hurricane Dorian relief in the Bahamas

Waves brought by hurricane Dorian crash against the beach access stairs of a home visible off Shell Avenue in Satellite Beach, on Tuesday, September 3, 2019. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

The agency leading the U.S. government’s response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Dorian in the northern Bahamas is significantly increasing its spending on humanitarian assistance, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced Thursday.

Agency Administrator Mark Green said the department is contributing roughly $4 million more toward efforts to provide shelter, food, medicine and water to Bahamians on Grand Bahama and the Abaco islands, which were slammed over the Labor Day weekend by Hurricane Dorian. The U.S. is also providing telecommunications to connect the islands — home to nearly 70,000 people before the storm hit.

“I think a lot of [the additional support] will be around shelter,” Tim Callaghan, the head of the 100-person U.S. Disaster Assistance Recovery Team deployed to the Bahamas, told the Miami Herald. “There’s bad weather coming the next couple of days. The ability to even start to try to help people repair homes … is critical. You want to do that as quickly as you can because the next two months, the chance of rain is still out there.”

The new investment — on top of the roughly $6 million already committed by USAID and the Department of Defense — comes amid a frantic humanitarian effort to evacuate thousands and provide clean drinking water, food and medicine to thousands more who remain on Grand Bahama and the Abaco islands. About 1,300 people are still missing, according to Bahamian authorities, and a new storm system is developing over the Atlantic Ocean.

The death toll has reached 50 but is expected to grow, as search and rescue teams continued to search the water Thursday around the two islands and 15 cays hit by Dorian.

According to USAID, 47 metric tons of relief supplies have already been distributed on the islands, including hygiene kits, water containers and plastic sheeting shipped from a warehouse in Miami. The increased spending — which follows bipartisan requests for additional resources by South Florida members of Congress — will pay for more resources as thousands remain on the islands, many living in shelters or in damaged homes.

The task of delivering that aid remains daunting.

Airports and seaports on the islands have “largely resumed normal functioning,” according to USAID. But people stranded after the storm have reported trouble getting to relief supplies, and roads remain badly damaged. Drinking water has also been scarce after a storm surge believed to have reached 23 feet tainted aquifers and damaged fuel tanks.

Sanford Martin, 43, lives in the Back-of-Town neighborhood of Freeport. He doesn’t have a car, making it difficult to get to the churches stocked with donated food and water from the Bahamian National Emergency Management Agency.

On Wednesday, Martin said aid finally arrived in his neighborhood in the form of grocery bags filled with non-perishable food and water from a church.

“It is hard because not everyone has a car to get around,” he said. “We have to try and get life back together.”

On Thursday, the Bahamas’ National Emergency Management Agency had international partners provide an update to the press on their humanitarian efforts. World Central Kitchen reported that it had already served more than 160,000 meals, had three helicopters delivering meals to storm victims in the Abacos and Grand Bahama Island and had 1 million pounds of goods on a boat being delivered from Florida.

In Florida, the humanitarian effort was also continuing with charter company owners like Tom Conlan delivering relief supplies. On Wednesday, two of his pilots from Sky Aviation Holdings in Pompano Beach flew 1,500 pounds of medical relief to Treasure Cay, where they also picked up a family from Green Turtle Cay that had survived the storm.

The supplies, donated by Baptist Health, had been collected by Shipwreck Park, another charitable group, whose chairman Rob Wyre said they were accepting relief donations and also raising money to help charter companies like Conlan’s pay for fuel.

“I’ve been traveling to the Bahamas for almost 40 years from one end to the next. I used to have a dog named Abaco and one named Exuma,” Conlan said. “It’s just a return of the feeling of being able to help people.”

Iram Lewis, who represents central Grand Bahama in Parliament, said while initially there were issues with the aid distribution it has improved. He said it’s impractical and time consuming to go house to house, and the government has set up 50 feeding centers, for example, in the various communities.

“The information on feeding centers are posted and if persons can get on Facebook and WhatsAPP, they will see it,” he said. “We are asking persons to be patient.”

Speaking to the Miami Herald, Callaghan, the leader of the USAID disaster team, praised the Bahamian government and international partners on the ground delivering supplies. But he said USAID is also watching to ensure that supplies reach people who need them.

“We’re listening to the local officials to ensure there’s enough supplies out there,” said Callaghan, noting that supplies sometimes need to be moved as people shift around on the islands. “What’s very important to me personally is that we monitor what’s given” to the Bahamian government and other relief organizations, and to make sure supplies get to Bahamians in need.

Shelter remains a critical need in the Bahamas.

Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott said in an interview Thursday that he spoke in the morning with Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis and Coast Guard Rear Admiral Peter Brown, and both said the greatest need right now is adequate shelter for hurricane victims.

[Brown] “felt comfortable that we’re making a lot of progress as far as food and water,” Scott said. “Shelter is their biggest problem.”

Scott and Minnis also talked about the Bahamas’ need to borrow money for recovery efforts.

“They started work on what they’re going to need as far as potentially borrowing some money to rebuild the Abacos,” Scott said. “He’s going to come back to me with his ideas and tell me what they need. I think they need to work through the United Nations for whatever they want to do.”

Miami Democratic Reps. Donna Shalala and Frederica Wilson said they plan to introduce Temporary Protected Status legislation for Hurricane Dorian victims in the Bahamas, even though the White House said Wednesday it was not considering the idea. TPS grants temporary legal status to foreign nationals from countries affected by armed conflict or natural disaster and allows those living in the U.S. by a certain date to remain in the country for a limited time.

“Our U.S. government has done a lot, but what I’m asking them for now is TPS,” Wilson said. “These are not people that are asking for a handout. These are not refugees who come to the United States illegally or anything like that. This is a humanitarian crisis of insurmountable numbers.”

Senate Democrats, led by New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, officially introduced a Bahamas TPS bill on Thursday. The bill, which grants TPS for 18 months, did not have any GOP support among the initial co-sponsors after the White House indicated Wednesday it does not support TPS for Hurricane Dorian victims. Spokespersons for Scott and Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio noted that the Bahamian government hasn’t asked for TPS.

Shalala said House Democrats will likely pass a TPS bill, but the more immediate concerns for her are entry requirements for temporary visas.

“We need to straighten out with the administration how people come in, because they keep changing the rules,” Shalala said.

She’s also urging the U.S. government to mobilize the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in case the Bahamian government asks for additional help to avert a public health crisis. She said the CDC was important after the 2010 Haiti earthquake but was deployed too slowly for her liking.

“We were slow on Haiti and you’ve got to get them in there to make sure, with standing water, we’re not creating a lot of diseases, and that immunizations are still being done with kids,” Shalala said.

Wilson said the Bahamas Foreign Affairs Department is in the process of making an official request for the USNS Comfort to be deployed to provide assistance. The hospital ship run by the U.S. military can hold 1,000 patients while offering critical medical services and desalinization for drinking water. Rubio called for the Comfort to be deployed last week.

“I have been in touch with the Foreign Affairs Department. They are in the process of asking for the Comfort ship,” Wilson said.


© 2019 Miami Herald