Caribbean, struggling in the pandemic, braces for hurricane season
By Kirk Semple
Houses with no roofs. Neighborhoods lacking electricity. Residents who fled still in exile.
Ten months after Hurricane Dorian pulverized the northern Bahamas, those islands are still struggling to recover, even as this year’s hurricane season begins. But rebuilding, always a slow process, has been slowed even further this year by a disaster of another sort: the coronavirus pandemic.
“That brought rebuilding efforts to a complete halt,” said Stafford Symonette, an evangelical pastor whose house on Great Abaco Island was severely damaged during the hurricane — and remains that way.
“You still have a lot of people in tents and temporary shelters,” he said.
The Bahamas — like other hurricane-prone countries in the Caribbean and North Atlantic — find themselves at the dramatic convergence of a devastating pandemic and an Atlantic hurricane season that is expected to be more active than normal.
The pandemic has profoundly affected all aspects of hurricane preparedness and response, and left nations even more vulnerable to the impacts of storms.
It has complicated rebuilding efforts from past hurricane seasons. It has crippled national economies in the region, many of which depend heavily on tourism. It has forced the reallocation of diminished government resources — money and personnel that otherwise might have been used for hurricane-related work — to deal with the public health crisis.
And it has meant that, in the event of a major storm, evacuation centers and shelters could now turn into dangerous vectors of coronavirus contagion, driving governments and relief agencies to figure out new protocols to keep evacuees safe.
These mounting challenges have overwhelmed many of the region’s governments and relief agencies, which are scrambling to prepare for the next big storm.
“Are we prepared for this hurricane season?” said Ronald Sanders, ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States and to the Organization of American States. “The answer is: no. And I don’t care who tells you we are. We haven’t been able to dedicate any funds toward hurricane preparedness this year.”
“These countries are struggling and have been for some time,” he continued. “The reality is that we are in dire straits.”
Weather scientists from the American government have predicted that during this Atlantic storm season, which began on June 1 and runs through Nov. 30, there will be as many as 19 named storms, with as many as six growing to major hurricane status. An average hurricane season has 12 named storms and three major hurricanes.
The season has gotten off to a quick start, with four named storms so far.
The region started the season at a severe economic disadvantage. The pandemic crushed the tourism industry, a main economic engine for much of the Caribbean. Hotels were shuttered, cruise ships remained docked, airplanes were grounded. The Caribbean Development Bank estimated that regional economic activity may contract by as much as 20% this year.
Sanders said he worried about what would happen should the region suffer a repeat of 2017, when several major hurricanes plowed through the Caribbean.
“If that were to happen again this year,” he said, “well, I think these economies will go into complete collapse.”
The pandemic has also presented a range of public health challenges for governments and relief groups preparing for hurricanes, including the need to ensure adequate social distancing during evacuations and in shelters, and a sufficient supply of personal protective gear for emergency workers and evacuees.
Health officials are also trying to stockpile medicine and other supplies and prepare for possible coronavirus outbreaks among evacuees.
“Without a doubt, once we have a natural hazard such as a hurricane, there will be a greater rate of infection, particularly with respect to COVID-19, among other diseases that could arise,” Dr. Laura-Lee Boodram, an official with the Caribbean Public Health Agency, warned during a recent panel discussion organized by the Caribbean Tourism Organization.
The Bahamas has been at a particular disadvantage in its efforts to get out before this year’s hurricane threat.
The coronavirus pandemic swept into the region only a few months after Dorian, one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes on record, made landfall on Sept. 1, 2019, killing scores of people in the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama Island, destroying thousands of structures and causing billions of dollars in damage.
Recovery efforts were fully underway by the time the country recorded its first coronavirus case on March 16. But less than two weeks later, with the number of infections mounting, the government had closed the nation’s borders and had begun imposing a series of restrictions on movement, including curfews, 24-hour lockdowns and a ban on travel between the archipelago’s islands.
While the measures helped curb the spread of the virus — the Bahamas has only 104 confirmed cases so far — they slowed recovery, delayed preparations for the new hurricane season and, combined with the global halt of the tourism industry, further plunged the country into economic distress.
The Bahamian government said it expects to incur a $1.3 billion deficit this fiscal year, equivalent to about 11.6% of gross domestic product and the largest in the history of the Bahamas.
“Any significant storm damage this year would put us in a very serious spot in terms of our fiscal projections,” Peter Turnquest, the Bahamas’ deputy prime minister and finance minister, said in an interview this week.
Among emergency officials’ greatest concerns as the hurricane season unfolds is the insufficient number of storm shelters in parts of the Bahamas. Many that were damaged during Dorian have yet to be repaired.
The International Organization for Migration said in a report in May that only 13 of the 25 official shelters on the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama were “usable” and had only enough capacity for about 2% of the population.
“We certainly pray that there are no storms this year,” Turnquest said. Adding to the uncertainty, the government is now poised to reopen the country’s borders to international visitors. The decision has sowed anxiety among many Bahamians who fear that it might spur a second wave of infections across the islands, triggering more lockdowns and border closures, and further complicating hurricane preparedness and response.
“People are nervous,” said Steve Pedican, whose house on Great Abaco Island was severely damaged in the hurricane. “People don’t know what to expect now.”
When asked what might happen should a major hurricane make landfall on Great Abaco in the coming months, Symonette, the evangelical pastor, went silent for a while, mulling the implications.
“I don’t know how we would cope with it if we get another one this year,” he finally said. “Praise God, that he be merciful to us.”