It looked like the trees had risen out of an angry ocean. It looked like a man was standing on a ship that had wandered into a storm. But the man was not on a ship; the man was on land, and the ocean was at his front door. The water was many feet deep and covered the road that led to his home. All one could see straight out to the horizon was ocean.
When Hurricane Dorian struck the Bahamas, there were many videos like this one circulating on my family’s group chat in WhatsApp. I sat in a park in Brooklyn on a calm day, a few clouds in the sky, and swiped through them all. I had relatives on Grand Bahama and on the Abacos; I grew up on New Providence. One video was taken by a family forced to climb into their attic as the water crashed against the concrete of their house. Another showed the view from a second floor, looking down at the Atlantic, which had risen to claim the first floor of a home, with furniture flung around like useless playthings.
In the park, women were pumping their fists to the rhythm of soca music and pulling their knees up to their stomachs. Families were out having picnics; fruits and churros abounded. While briefly glancing up from my iPhone, I caught the eyes of a small boy. He was looking at me with his eyebrows tight and shook his head as if he were disappointed, as if he knew that I had a hurricane on the brain. I sat in the park and stared out into the distance, past the harbor and into the Atlantic, toward the Bahamas, where Dorian was wreaking its havoc. Dorian had opened its one good and terrible eye over my country and for almost two days it refused to budge. There were people trapped in their homes, people trapped in their attics, and people trapped outside in the storm itself, in search of safety after their roofs had come clean off.
The Bahamas has been struck by many of the storms that have plowed through the Caribbean in the last few decades: Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Floyd, Ike, Matthew, Irma, and so on. We’re familiar with their destruction, and so we have our protocols, our shelters, our rigorous building codes, and our years and years of experience. We also have the stories that have been passed down through generations, the ones that taught us about the worst dangers of the hurricanes that have hit our archipelago, and the legends of how people survived them.
But that’s no longer enough. “I have never seen nothing like that,” a woman screams at the top of her lungs in a video that was widely shared on Instagram. “There’s not one house in Marsh Harbor that’s standing,” she says. “Dead bodies everywhere.” Her eyes are wide and darting quickly, as if she has just seen a ghost, or many. “That couldn’t have just been a hurricane.”
These storms are, for sure, different. And deadly. Dorian became its terrible self after it climbed to Category 5 status on September 1st, the very same day that it made landfall in the Abacos. By the time it was clear that Dorian, with sustained winds of a hundred and eighty-five miles per hour, would be the strongest hurricane ever to hit the Bahamas, it was too late for most people in Grand Bahama and the Abacos to react or flee.
Climate scientists have warned us of such disasters. As carbon emissions continue to enter the atmosphere and the greenhouse effect persists, global temperatures will continue to rise. The air and water around the tropical Atlantic will get warmer and warmer, and, likely, as a result, hurricanes will develop and grow stronger more quickly and carry more rain as they move. “There is no way that you could have prepared for a storm like this,” said Kimberly Mullings, a Bahamian resident in Freeport, during an interview with CBC News while the storm spun outside. Through her window, there were trees dipping and flailing like drunk men in an alley. Months earlier, her family had a new roof installed. Within hours of Dorian’s arrival, it was showing signs of damage and leaking.
And she’s right: preparation for a storm like this is near impossible. In Eight Mile Rock, the second largest settlement in Grand Bahama, my cousin’s husband had remained at home during the hurricane while she and her children were travelling. During past storms, the house had emerged almost unscathed, with minor damage here and there. That house was “thought to be one of the strongest houses” in the neighborhood, my cousin confirmed to the family group chat. But, after Dorian left, after the howling winds calmed and the water began to recede, she had yet to hear from her husband. When conditions finally allowed access to the house, when the water parted and a few roads were cleared, the plot of land where the house once stood had a hill of rubble sitting atop it. The reinforced concrete walls were split to pieces, as if by a toddler barreling through a sandcastle. It seemed that only half of the wreckage of the house was there. Half the house was rubble, the other half pulled out to sea, with my cousin-in-law lost in the current. The same fate is understood to have fallen upon numerous other families who remained in the area.
This is the kind of grief attached to this storm: a grief that might not provide a body. Currently, the death count sits at fifty, but officials expect it to rise dramatically in the coming days, weeks, months. There are still hundreds missing, if not thousands. Officials fear that there are still many who are buried far beneath the rubble, and there are those, too, like my cousin-in-law, who have likely been swept out to sea. The death toll, when tallied, may never be a complete or accurate expression of the lives that the storm claimed.
Concerns about the climate have been on the minds of Bahamians for years now. Summers are noticeably hotter, and just last June, an advisory circulated across Bahamian group chats on WhatsApp, addressed to all those who might have been living in the Bahamas at the time. “The Meteorological Agency warns us to prepare for warmer days and nights,” it said. “This preparation will require smart coping strategies and participation in climate resilient practices.” The strategies included staying hydrated, taking cold baths, and avoiding the sun when it’s at its highest by staying indoors “between 12pm and 3pm each day as much as possible.”
But, in the wake of Dorian, concerns are at a fever pitch. Some Bahamians are debating what we should ask of our politicians to protect against future storms. Others are hoping to evacuate a lot sooner and are willing to fork up the money to flee—temporarily—to another country if any new, awful hurricanes threaten to flatten the Bahamian landscape and their homes with it. “If a Cat 5 storm is headed here,” my sister told me, “It’s best to leave.” She’ll try to find refuge in Florida, or come stay with me in New York. “The earth is sick, ice caps are melting, sea animals are dying,” she said. “Based on the earth’s current condition, it’s best to leave.”
In the Times, Erica Moiah James, a Bahamian and an assistant professor of art history at the University of Miami, adds context: “[The Bahamas] has a tiny carbon footprint but carries the burden of being ground zero for our climate crisis.” The world’s big carbon emitters are currently not evenly yoked with those who suffer the consequences of climate change. “We Bahamians listen to climate deniers in rich countries who are oblivious or indifferent to those who bear the weight for their wonderful lives,” she wrote.
Today, in a Brooklyn that is still calm, I watched a man on a motorcycle speed past my apartment as coarse, black smoke billowed from his muffler. He was one person among many of us, indifferent to the harm that our personal choices add up to. Small Island Developing States such as the Bahamas and the numerous countries of the Caribbean—and also the Maldives and Samoa, among others—are on the front lines of climate-change disasters and yet have little power to reverse the crisis by their own efforts. And still, in June, despite opposition from climate activists and Indigenous groups, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved a Trans Mountain pipeline expansion that would insure that the amount of crude oil transported by the pipeline increases many times over. And still, the Amazon is burning, glaciers are melting, and hurricanes are becoming more ruthless.
The climate crisis is here, and alleviating it is going to require the efforts of the whole world. “The Bahamas is presently at war and being attacked by Hurricane Dorian,” the Bahamian Prime Minister, Hubert Minnis, said in the middle of Dorian’s assault. “And yet it has no weapon at its disposal to defend itself during such an assault by this enemy.” Dominica and Puerto Rico had no possible defenses in the face of Hurricane Maria, in 2017, either. Island nations all across the Caribbean remain at risk, and the most potent defense that we have is to strategize and organize collectively, across countries, to reverse our course.
And so, a plea: oh world, oh every country, oh citizens of everywhere, the stakes are unreasonably high. Please donate money to the relief efforts. Send supplies if you can. Offer up your vacation time to visit the Bahamian islands that weren’t affected. Bahamians will use every drop to recover, rebuild, to start anew. But because there are people buried beneath the rubble of their own homes, it is perhaps time for all of us to get angry. The burdens remain uneven: what happened in the Bahamas was a climate injustice. We owe the Bahamian people at least our anger, at least our action. Recycle. Carpool. Become tender with the Earth and the resources that it affords us. Consider what impact your food choices have on the environment at large. Turn to face the industries that currently have us careening toward an awful future. Bahamian lives, and the lives of the Caribbean at large, hang in the balance.
September 1, 2019, is now a day etched into the marble of Bahamian history and Bahamian memory. But it’s also a day that should be remembered the world over: the day that our accumulated choices and our inaction against climate change swelled into a storm. The day that the sky opened up and tried to swallow a country.