Disaster recovery in Bahamas

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: recovering from natural disaster in the Bahamas. 

It’s been six weeks now since Hurricane Dorian ransacked communities on the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama. The storm flattened or flooded homes and businesses, obliterating entire communities. The official death toll stands at 56. Still missing, another 600 people.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Thousands of people had to leave their communities and wait for rebuilding. Some traveled to the United States. But many ended up in parts of the Bahamas not affected by the storm, including the capital Nassau.

That’s where Julian Russell pastors Covenant Life Presbyterian Church. He’s also a team leader for Mission to the World Bahamas. And he joins us now from Nassau to talk about ongoing recovery efforts.

Pastor Russell, thanks so much for joining us today.

JULIAN RUSSELL, GUEST: Thanks for having me. 

REICHARD: Let’s begin with recovery efforts in Abaco and Grand Bahama. Are they still mostly disaster zones? What’s the progress being made to restore services and make repairs?

RUSSELL: Yeah, they’re still disaster zones. Abaco is far more down the road, but there are efforts to at least bring in personnel. And let me say right off the top, we thank the Lord for our friends in the United States—the U.S. Coast Guard, Navy, USAID, Samaritan’s Purse, and the many organizations from the U.S. and Europe and Canada and even the Caribbean—who have come in and have really done a great job, a yeoman’s job in trying to assess the monumental disaster in Abaco and eastern Grand Bahama as well… 

REICHARD: Now you’re in Nassau, which wasn’t affected by the storm. But the city’s taken in a lot of people who were displaced. What’s life like for them, as far as housing, jobs? 

RUSSELL: My wife and I—by God’s grace—we were able to accommodate 10 people for a week and a half and they’ve subsequently moved on to the United States. But we, Nassau, has absorbed at least 10,000 students into its public school system and many families have come in.

So they estimate that there are at least 40-50,000 people who have been absorbed into one of the smallest islands in the Bahama Island chain. And it’s different. One can only imagine how folks have lost everything and they’re trying to move on.

We have people who attend our worship services and you listen to them and you realize that it’s a strange new world for them. They’re still, the government still has shelters open. There’s one remaining where they’ve consolidated just last weekend—by the way—they’ve consolidated all the evacuees who didn’t have families to stay with. And they’re now in one huge area and it’s under 1,000 people. It’s about 900—I think the exact figure as of Friday was 983 persons. 

REICHARD: You mentioned churches earlier. And we’ve just talked about physical needs. What about their spiritual and emotional needs? Are churches addressing those?

RUSSELL: Wow, in so many ways. There’s a group of psychologists and counselors who have come in and they’ve been working with the government and working with other agencies. There is a Bahama Psychological Association and even Mission to the World, when they came in and did the assessment, there’s an effort underway to bring in counselors, therapists, to deal with the trauma that almost everyone is experiencing here in the Bahamas. 

Our church is—we’re a small mission church. We started a year ago and we understand that folks are hurting and so there is massive individual efforts. 

But thankfully what Dorian has done for us as a community of churches is we realize we have to work together. And so I was just on the phone with another brother from an EPC church, and he and I have been working closely together to try to deal with issues of just people having to move on, yet having lost everything.

The reality, Mary, is that we are aware that many families have left Grand Bahama now and they’ve gone to the United States and Canada and some have relocated here. What that translates into is that many churches have lost a huge quotient of its members and so one pastor told me he lost 75 percent of his members and he’s wondering what to do. Many pastors have lost homes. They’ve lost everything and so that is a great question because that is the big issue that faces everyone right now, the amount of trauma that everyone faces. 

REICHARD: What do you see as next steps to recover in the Bahamas?

RUSSELL: Oh boy. I learned a few years ago, Mary, to stop, listen, and then follow. I mean, right now as I speak, people are still recovering dead bodies and there are those experts who know how to do that. 

But there’s still that physical rebuilding that needs to take place. There’s policing that needs to take place. But people have to live every day. 

So it’s caused every one of us to become more sensitized to the holistic needs of people. But, obviously, we have to provide shelter and food and clothing for people and then continue on in trying to rebuild their lives one day at a time.

REICHARD: Julian Russell pastors Covenant Life Presbyterian Church in Nassau, Bahamas. Thanks so much for joining us today.

RUSSELL: Thank you very much, Mary. You’re welcome and continue to pray for us.

(AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa) A Bahamas flag flies tied to a sapling, amidst the rubble left by Hurricane Dorian in Abaco, Bahamas, Monday, Sept. 16, 2019. 

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