On August 26th 2019, the first warnings began coming from the NHC (National Hurricane Center); Dorian could be headed for the Bahamas. At that point, the potential was there, but Dorian was simply a Tropical Storm, and there was too much uncertainty.
The 28th of August began with an official Hurricane Watch and then escalated into a Hurricane Warning. The implications of what Dorian had become, the sluggish speed that it was traveling, and the path it seemed to take were intensifying the worry of the island nation. When full evacuations began on August 31st, the reality of the situation was fully realized.
As emergency crews and medical staff prepared for the worst, the wheelchair community across the islands were hoping for something; be better than last time. In both Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Katrina, the stunning lack of readiness and execution of any plans to assist the wheelchair-based residents were truly abysmal. The consequences were much worse. Forgotten people waiting without aid, lack of transportation to the hardest-hit areas, and the result was an entire community that had to struggle for themselves.
For every piece of devastating news, there is a spark of hope, though. Rand Memorial Hospital on Grand Bahama island began early evacuations of their patients, with priority going to those in wheelchairs. While this was happening, a smaller private hospital on Grand Bahama found itself completely dry. It was able to provide tertiary services until other hospitals were back online, as well as become a shelter for over 20 people who had been evacuated.
However, the grim reality of the rebuilding process is magnified for those evacuees in wheelchairs. Some have no home to return to, and being displaced means no guarantee for a wheelchair-abled house or living area. The inability to provide these necessities lowers the likelihood of an interim or fostering situation, as even the most generous of people may be hesitant when not able to adequately provide for those with a disability.
Roads and sidewalks that were already a daily task for the community are now chasms and sharp edges. Gashes across concrete and sinkholes create a nearly impossible terrain for anyone in a wheelchair to traverse, and the priorities of the cleanup and repair crews may not always be geared towards fixing these issues, at least not until later.
Over 13,000 homes were damaged in the storm, displacing over 14,000 survivors. Those who could were running towards whatever safety they had, but in truth, the trip home is where the actual difficulties begin. Now, it is not to say that the wheelchair community was wholly overlooked or ignored, but this is now the third major storm that has created these issues; despite earlier warning systems and the clear view of the previous failures in both Irma and Katrina. The government in the Bahamas created the ministry of Disaster Preparedness, Management, and Reconstruction to focus on the extensive rebuild of an entire island directly.
Sadly, despite these progressive attempts, even if those from the wheelchair community can find safety, be rescued, and gain access to a shelter, the issues follow. Most shelters are designated medical buildings, universities, or other industrialized locations. Unfortunately, many are chosen due to locale and proximity to high-risk areas; these are not upgraded facilities, but instead homes, warehouses, and places that are not equipped to handle the needs of one in a wheelchair. Reports have come through regarding shelters turning away those with disabilities due to the facility’s “inability to provide the full spectrum of care” for the wheelchair community. While those are a rarity, the occurrence at all is disheartening.
When dealing with the devastation of this magnitude, assessing the damages and being able to take full account of the effects is something that, unfortunately, takes time; more time than usual for a general assessment. The total death toll for Hurricane Maria in 2018 didn’t finalize until a year later (2,957 dead), and that was just the Puerto Rican statistics. For a storm of this size and strength, followed by the massive destruction, the full impact on the islands as a whole and directly upon the wheelchair community won’t be seen for several more months, at least. The rebuilding process is a long and arduous one in the best of circumstances. Still, for an island community that, despite the propensity for these storms, finds itself devastated, the effects will linger for much longer.
All is not hopeless. Help is what brings those out of that hopelessness. The communities on Grand Bahama were looking out for neighbors, as a young man did when he swam between the houses on either side of his, to rescue children, hospitals opening their doors when the waters didn’t reach their steps, and all of you are a vital part. Not everyone can be on-site to do the relief work, but the ability to reach out and uplift the lives of those in need are readily available. The wheelchair-based community is one of the hardest hit in these circumstances; the path from finding safety to the return “home” is one filled with uncertainty and more difficulty than usual. The daily challenges are magnified by the circumstances surrounding them.
You can give. You can help. If you would like to donate in a general fashion, the links and information below can efficiently direct you. However, if you would like to specify that your donation is towards the wheelchair-based community, it goes a long way. The storm may have ravaged, but in the end, the sun will rise; be a part of the new day that Grand Bahama needs.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
· Bahamas Red Cross: https://bahamasredcross.org/donate/
· International Medical Corps: https://internationalmedicalcorps.org/emergency-response/hurricane-dorian
· Project Hope: https://www.projecthope.org/
· The Salvation Army: https://www.salvationarmyusa.org/usn/ways-to-give/
· Chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen: https://donate.wck.org/give/236738/#!/donation/checkout
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