Hurricane Dorian / Recovering from the alarming realities of a warming world

Trevor Oneil Johnson II

When Hurricane Dorian hit in 2019, the scenic beauty of The Bahamas was left in ruins. With climate change exacerbating the impacts of tropical weather systems more and more, genuine action is what’s needed, and everyone must play their part.

Image © Cristina Mittermeier

Trevor Oneil Johnson II

Image © Cristina Mittermeier

Over the past six years, The Bahamas has been impacted by five major hurricanes. While storms like these are natural occurrences, the frequency of such powerful storms traversing through the Caribbean is anything but normal.

While I am a climate change specialist and budding academician in disaster management, my experience isn’t just theoretical. On September 1, 2019, Hurricane Dorian made landfall as a cataclysmic Category 5 hurricane in my Bahamian home. And I was there, watching as this beast fueled by warming sea surface temperatures etched its name on the landscape of my community.

Hurricane Dorian looming large, shortly before making landfall on the Abaco Islands in the northern Bahamas · NOAA

As it happened, I had just returned to The Bahamas before Dorian hit, after completing my master’s degree in climate change.

While finishing my thesis, I’d decided to found the Bahamas Climate Change Campaign, an organization with the aim of raising awareness of this multifaceted threat across the length and breadth of my nation. Doing so had unknowingly prepared me to help with the impending crisis.

Hurricane Dorian was expected to impact Grand Bahama Island on September 1. My first experience in the space of emergency management landed me in the West Grand Bahama Emergency Operations Center (EOC)─a 72-hour volunteer commitment that turned into ten days.

I assumed my duties at the Eight Mile Rock Clinic on August 30 and was assigned to the communications unit and search and rescue team. The wind was eerily still, and the sun radiated brighter than ever. This was indeed the clichéd “calm before the storm.”

The following day, meteorologists warned that Dorian was expected to be stronger and slower. The EOC went into overdrive. Evacuation, action, and mobilization became the orders of the day. Adrenaline filled my body as I waited for the arrival of a storm. Hours later, the island of Abaco─about 200 miles east of West Grand Bahama─began to experience the full brunt of Dorian. Videos and pictures telegraphed the decimation and destruction. East Grand Bahama was next.

Homes, schools, and clinics were among the structures decimated by Hurricane Dorian when it struck The Bahamas · Cristina Mittermeier

Entire families lost their lives, while others clung to rafters as the rushing Atlantic Ocean swept through neighborhoods and homes. As if its fury was not enough, Dorian moved along the spine of Grand Bahama at one mile per hour and eventually became stationary over the island. This was a terrifying development: it meant rain, wind, and storm surge stretching for 41 unimaginable hours, which further weakened homes and shelters. Wind gusts blew more than 200 mph; storm surges swelled as high as 30 feet; and rain fell, amassing to more than 24 inches. My island was drowning.

The main hospital became flooded, and the central command center in the city of Freeport was inundated. It was this reality that prompted us to prepare for the worst in West Grand Bahama.

“Get tagged” is the instruction that I will never forget. We were told to get tagged because if the EOC became severely compromised, which was entirely possible, they’d need to be able to identify our bodies. The intensity and tension associated with this moment reflected the danger at hand.

Emotions ran high as the EOC was overwhelmed with calls from panicked residents needing assistance. But after about five hours of unending calls, there was a deafening silence when the blasts of telephone rings stopped—not because help was no longer needed, but due to utility infrastructure being damaged. My colleagues and I looked at each other with dread, because we could only imagine what would be waiting for us on the other side. About ten hours after this, Dorian began to weaken and eventually made its exit from the islands—but not before leaving its horrific mark on our homes and on our hearts.

After the hurricane became stationary over Grand Bahamas, rain, wind, and storm surge wreaked havoc for an unimaginable 41 hours · Cristina Mittermeier
Trevor’s first experience of emergency management was during Hurricane Dorian. After five hours of unending calls from panicked residents needing assistance, the telephones stopped ringing due to utility infrastructure being damaged · Cristina Mittermeier
Trevor was among the volunteers at the West Grand Bahamas Emergency Operations Center who were told to “get tagged” in case their bodies needed to be identified · Trevor Oneil Johnson II
The rain that fell on East Grand Bahamas during the hurricane amassed to more than 24 inches · Cristina Mittermeier
Hurricane Dorian’s initial damage assessments were valued at billions of dollars, and the recovery operation is ongoing · Cristina Mittermeier

Similar marks still scar the islands. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew devastated Abaco and changed the landscape of disaster management in the country. Hurricane Floyd in 1999 was no different, ravaging the islands of Eleuthera and Cat Island. Between 2004 and 2005, Hurricanes Francis, Jeanne, and Wilma ingrained their fury into the Bahamian landscape, with Grand Bahama bearing the brunt of their force. I can recall missing as much as six weeks of school because of damage to infrastructure and essential services. What’s more, Hurricane Irma obliterated the tranquillity and serenity of Ragged Island in 2017, and the island still remains uninhabitable.

Marks from other powerful “sea monsters” still scar the islands. Names like Ike, Irene, Joaquin, and Matthew serve as reminders of devastation and the changing climate · Cristina Mittermeier
To date, I’ve experienced the impacts of ten tropical weather systems—but Hurricane Dorian was by far the worst. The storm’s initial damage assessments were valued at a staggering $3.4 billion, representing nearly a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product.

Homes, schools, and clinics were converted to heaps of mangled plywood, pipes, and wires. Makeshift housing and settlements in Abaco were wholly wiped away as if they had never existed. Mangroves, seashores, and pine forests that once comprised the scenic beauty of The Bahamas were left in ruins. The majority of Grand Bahama’s water supply—from underground wells and aquifers—were inundated by the storm. Some parts of the island remained without potable water for an entire year. Additionally, the storm’s fury resulted in 50,000 barrels of oil being spilled onto nearby pine forests. The habitat of many local species like the Abaco parrot, house sparrow, and Cuban pewees was drastically affected.

Protected areas, including coral reefs and mangrove forests, were damaged during the storm. Initiatives such as debris removal and replanting mangroves have since taken place · Cristina Mittermeier

As a country of small islands, cays, and atolls that are vulnerable and susceptible to multiple hazardous events, we can no longer sit idly by and ignore the clear dangers of climate change.

As a result of Hurricane Dorian, the Government of The Bahamas formed the Ministry of Disaster Preparedness, Management, and Reconstruction to better prepare the country to respond to and recover from future disasters. Building code revisions, enhanced drainage systems, and increased storage capacity of relief supplies are some of the efforts the Ministry is pursuing. Additionally, I had the pleasure of serving as a consultative partner for the Integrated Water, Land, and Ecosystems Management Project in The Bahamas, which strives to develop a cohesive and balanced approach to natural resources management via multi-sectoral engagement, policy implementation, and the integration of traditional knowledge.

The Bahamas National Trust (BNT), a non-profit organization that seeks to conserve and protect the Bahamian environment, has also played a significant role in the recovery of marine and terrestrial protected areas. Through grant funding, the BNT has placed a considerable focus on restoring the protected areas that were damaged during the storm, through debris removal and replanting mangroves. Alternative energy projects, like Green Grid in East Grand Bahama, also provide avenues for cleaner energy sources and sustainable communities.

To promote the health of ecosystems and the sustainability of infrastructure in The Bahamas, there needs to be representation in the climate change sector · Cristina Mittermeier

I founded the Bahamas Climate Change Campaign (BCCC) out of this necessity for representation in the climate change sector to ensure that we, as Bahamians, remain a critical part of the solution.

This was done in the recognition of a need for community-based organizations to champion local climate action and ensure that “climate change” becomes a household phrase. The BCCC not only seeks to inform Bahamians of threats like ocean acidification, sea-level rise, and stronger hurricanes, but we are also advocates for marine protected areas (MPAs). Such MPAs can act as buffer zones to mitigate hurricane intensity, and ultimately reduce threats to the islands while fostering resilient ecosystems.

The BCCC’s slogan, “80 in 80,” addresses the reality that in the next 80 years, The Bahamas is at risk of losing nearly 80 percent of its landmass due to its low elevation and sea level rise.

When I give presentations to local audiences, these alarming realities send chills through the room. Our collective experience of Hurricane Dorian underlined how much we are impacted by climate change, as a country and as a community. The goal now is to turn that concern into action. At this very moment, countries like The Bahamas, Jamaica, Barbados, Nauru, Kiribati, and the Maldives are dependent on humanity’s ingenuity and resourcefulness to address climate change and usher in a brighter tomorrow. We have no time to waste.

Trevor gives presentations to local audiences as part of his work to ensure that “climate change” becomes a household phrase in The Bahamas · Trevor Oneil Johnson II

Hurricane Dorian has proven to many of my fellow Bahamians that climate change is real—that it’s here and happening now. There is no doubt that we will continue to experience harmful and devastating events that will test the resilience of our people. My country is in a race against stronger hurricanes and sea level rise. Bahamians bear the brunt of climate change’s wrath—but we did not cause it.

It’s time for industrialized nations to take responsibility for their actions and to step up. We must mobilize on a larger scale to ensure that governments keep issues like climate change at the forefront of their legislative and policy agendas. How much longer can my islands be flattened by hurricanes before we act? How many lives must be lost? How many of my people must I embrace after terrifying experiences like Hurricane Dorian?

The moment for genuine action is now, and we need everyone’s help.

It’s time for governments to keep issues like climate change at the forefront of their legislative and policy agendas, especially in industrialized nations. The race against stronger hurricanes and sea level rise requires all of us to take genuine action · Cristina Mittermeier
Contributors
Trevor Oneil Johnson II
Climate change specialist
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