The number of Bahamians who will need to relocate to the South Florida area from storm-ravaged Abaco and Grand Bahama Islands is unknown but Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the area can and will absorb the evacuees.
Gimenez has seen first-hand the devastation left behind by Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas. He describes the place as an area with habitable and uninhabitable spaces.
“Their infrastructure is shot; they have no electricity; they have no water. While I didn’t think the situation is unmanageable. It’s a question of getting food and water, supplies to the area that needs them, and then making a determination of the infrastructure and there will have to be a total rebuild. It will probably be easier to relocate some of those inhabited areas to places that actually have infrastructure, while the infrastructure is being rebuilt,” Gimenez said.
It is a daunting task that government, community-based organizations and the clergy will have to manage. As part of its relief efforts in the past week, Miami-Dade County, working in tandem with the city of Miami, sent two groups of search-and-rescue teams to the Bahamas to aid local authorities in bringing survivors to safety. And though the county has set up different donations drop-off points for the people of the Bahamas, it is unclear how it is expected to absorb the influx of evacuees coming to Miami-Dade.
The images of imploded homes, flipped cars, and people wading through chest-deep water to escape Hurricane Dorian's wrath hit South Florida’s congregations and spurred them to action. some pastors hope to head off the problem for those seeking places to live while South Florida faces an affordable housing crisis. At the same time, elected officials are advocating the federal government to loosen visa rules and Hurricane Dorian relief supply drives abound.
Gimenez believes it will take the efforts of the Bahamian, United States and some other governments to rebuild the decimated islands.
Several elected officials have called the federal government to waive certain visa requirements for Bahamians with family in the U.S.
“That is the most pressing thing that we are trying to get through to President Trump as of right now,” State Rep. Shevrin Jones said to the Miami Times.
Jones and State Rep. Kionne McGhee were among several elected officials who toured the areas hardest hit by the storm last week.
“The areas were completely destroyed,” McGhee said.
It will take an orchestrated effort of local, state, and federal government to absorb the influx Bahamians nationals fleeing the destruction in the islands, Jones said.
According to different reports, a group of more than 100 Bahamians residents was turned away from a Balearia ferry Saturday evening en route to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale.
Reportedly, The Bahamians had been told they could evacuate to the U.S. as long as they had a passport and a copy of their police record but were ordered off the ship before it left because they did not have travel visas. “That was a complete embarrassment and it was also wrong,” McGhee said of the incident.
“These individuals need to be allowed to come into the states because they need a place to stay, rest their heads and build their lives,” Jones said.
At the federal level, U.S Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio are among the elected officials urging the president to loosen travel requirements for evacuees and clarify travel requirements for Bahamians.
“Senator Rubio and I continue to urge President Trump to waive some visa requirements for those in the Bahamas that have families in the United States,” Scott said in a statement. “But until that happens, there needs to be clarity on the current rules.”
The state of Florid has offered a little more than 300,000 bottles. Gov. Ron DeSantis has not joined the chorus of those asking for visa waivers, adding that Bahamians are seeking “special migration” status and that shelters are not open in the state.
The Florida Democratic Party has condemned his stance.
“Now is not the time to turn away people in need, now is the time action!” the party’s chair, Terrie Rizzo, said Tuesday.
Of the 70,000 or so who are affected by the storm, some will relocate to family members in the Bahamas, while others will stay with family members in South Florida, Gimenez predicts.
For the others, “Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach are working together to try to see how we can absorb these Bahamians coming over here because frankly, they have nothing left at home. Yeah, do I believe we can do it? Yes, I do believe we can do it,” Gimenez said,
“County staff is working up the plans, which includes asking the federal government for help because it is a federal responsibility. Miami-Dade County has always welcomed people from the Caribbean with open arms and we will continue to do.”
Whether evacuees will end up in shelters depends on the number of people who see refuge,” Gimenez said. “A small number so far has needed government assistance; most who have arrived have united with family members. It really depends on the numbers and the individual's situation.”
First, governments will need to determine the full extent of the damage of the infrastructure and start the rebuilding of it. People are leaving Marsh Harbour, one of the hardest-hit areas, and Gimenez expects that will happen in other locations, too.
“Most of it has to be rebuilt not repaired. It was completely destroyed. That’s going to be the hard part. That is going to take some time. Meantime, those isolated areas … pockets of inhabited areas … it’s easier to take care of the people somewhere else that has infrastructure versus always trying to supply water, food and supplies to those areas.”
The Clergy Steps In
Several churches in Miami are activating to help Bahamians coming to South Florida, but some believe Miami’s ongoing affordable housing crisis will prove a challenging transition for the evacuees fleeing the destruction left by one of the most powerful storms recorded in the Atlantic.
Days after Hurricane Dorian destroyed Grand Bahama and Abaco Islands, St. Matthews Missionary Baptist and Greater St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal churches, both of which enjoy strong Bahamian roots, organized to help evacuees coming to South Florida.
Already close to 4,000 to 5,000 Bahamians trying to figure out their next move have arrived in South Florida since the hurricane, according to reports by The New York Times and CNN. Miami-Dade is one of the worst counties in the nation when it comes to affordable living, said Nathaniel Robinson, senior pastor St. Paul AME Church in the West Grove.
“To have an influx of people who have lost everything, I think it would be challenging,” he said.
Several media outlets report that over 70,000 people are homeless following Hurricane Dorian. According to census data, South Florida is home to some 21,000 Bahamian expats, many whom reside in the West Grove, in the city of Miami, and throughout the county. And while some evacuees may be able to find refuge with family members, others may have to fend for themselves as they settle in different parts of South Florida.
“It is quite possible,” Robinson said.
In the West Grove, Miami’s historically Bahamian-native neighborhood, gentrification continues to change the fabric of that community, as residents are forced to deal with high rents, rising property taxes, as well as evictions and demolition of their units.
St. Paul AME Church provides affordable housing for low-income families living in the embattled neighborhood. To help the evacuees seeking a place to stay, the church is discussing the possibility of making some of its vacant units available for families in need, Robinson said.
“That is something that is on our radar; we want to do our part,” he said.
In Brownsville, St. Matthews Missionary Baptist, which has one of the largest Bahamian congregations outside of the West Grove, is also organizing efforts to help evacuees coming to South Florida.
Over 90 percent of its church membership is of Bahamian background, said Senior Pastor Vincent Brown.
“This devastation that occurred hits home,” Brown said. “It is beyond what anyone could ever imagine.”
Following Hurricane Dorian, the church quickly organized a multi-church network of hurricane relief efforts to send to The Bahamas, and has begun helping evacuees settling in South Florida post the catastrophic storm.
The church, working alongside the Bahamas Consulate General’s office, has already begun delivering essential goods, medical and building equipment to the people of Grand Bahama and Abacos Islands, as it seeks to provide support to incoming Bahamian nationals fleeing the Caribbean nation.
With a network of churches from Miami Gardens and Pembroke Pines, the churches are calling one another to supply the incoming families’ needs, Brown said.
For the pastors, their faith in God keeps them in a positive state of mind as they continue to help their Bahamian brethren.
“We are a people of faith. We know that God will protect us and we will weather this storm,” Brown said. “The Bahamas will come back even stronger.”