A warn­ing on cli­mate change, poverty

Ex­perts: Res­i­dents liv­ing in poor ar­eas will be hit hardest

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - Front Page - By Phil McKenna In­sid­eCli­mate News

When Hur­ri­cane Dorian hit the north­ern Bahamas, it brought the force of 185-mph sus­tained winds and a storm surge al­most the height of a two-story build­ing that flat­tened and flooded homes, leav­ing thou­sands of peo­ple flee­ing for safety — if they could es­cape at all.

In some of the poor­est neigh­bor­hoods, there was no safe haven to be found.

The dev­as­ta­tion was so wide­spread across Great Abaco and Grand Ba­hama

is­lands that re­cov­ery crews were only be­gin­ning to get into many ar­eas more than a week later and only a few dozen bod­ies had been for­mally counted. The thou­sands of peo­ple un­ac­counted for and the de­scrip­tions of bod­ies amid the de­bris sug­gested a far higher death toll.

As of Tues­day, 5,400 peo­ple had been evac­u­ated to New Prov­i­dence, home to Nas­sau, the na­tion’s cap­i­tal. Emer­gency re­sponse of­fi­cials es­ti­mated 4,000 peo­ple re­mained on Great Abaco, where liv­ing con­di­tions, in­clud­ing lack of food, run­ning wa­ter and elec­tric­ity, were be­com­ing in­creas­ingly dire.

Many of the miss­ing were from low-ly­ing shan­ty­towns where thou­sands of Haitian mi­grants lived in rough-hewn wooden struc­tures that were flat­tened by the storm.

“It looked like a bomb just ex­ploded,” said Dorval Dar­lier, chargé d’af­faires of the Haitian Em­bassy in Nas­sau, who toured what re­mained of a neigh­bor­hood known as The Mudd and other shan­ty­towns on Great Abaco is­land where an es­ti­mated 3,500 Haitian mi­grants lived be­fore the storm. “It is com­pletely destroyed. Not even a piece of wood stands up in The Mudd. If some­one [was] not evac­u­ated, they have to be dead.”

The storm’s dev­as­ta­tion in the Bahamas high­lights a risk pub­lic health ex­perts have long warned about: cli­mate change will hit the most vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions hardest, par­tic­u­larly the poor, but also the el­derly and women, who of­ten are re­spon­si­ble for car­ing for oth­ers. Those with the fewest means of­ten live in the most vul­ner­a­ble ar­eas, and they are the least able to af­ford to evac­u­ate and re­set­tle.

Hu­man rights ad­vo­cates blamed the gov­ern­ment for not do­ing more to help peo­ple liv­ing in the Bahamas’ shan­ty­towns.

“They were pre­dict­ing right on the dot the sea level rise, they could have called an emer­gency meet­ing of par­lia­ment or of the cab­i­net and they could have in­sti­tuted manda­tory evac­u­a­tion and hun­dreds and hun­dreds of those peo­ple would be saved,” Joseph Darville, vice pres­i­dent of Rights Bahamas, said. “It is a catas­tro­phe be­yond mea­sure.”

While Ba­hamian of­fi­cials did visit The Mudd prior to the storm and urged res­i­dents to evac­u­ate, many peo­ple still did not leave, per­haps be­cause they had nowhere to go or be­cause they were liv­ing in the Bahamas il­le­gally, Dar­lier said.

“What I have heard is they said they are afraid of be­ing ar­rested, some of them are not le­gal,” Dar­lier said.

Why women face greater vul­ner­a­bil­ity

Hous­ing, im­mi­gra­tion status and the means to leave are all ex­am­ples of how vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties are more heav­ily im­pacted by ex­treme weather events that are be­com­ing more fre­quent and more se­vere as a re­sult of cli­mate change.

It’s a trend that will only con­tinue to worsen as global tem­per­a­tures rise, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent United Nations re­port look­ing at the fu­ture im­pacts of 1.5 de­grees Cel­sius of warm­ing, a level nations agreed un­der the Paris cli­mate agree­ment to try not to ex­ceed to avoid wors­en­ing risks.

Women, as well as the chil­dren and el­derly they care for, are some of the most vul­ner­a­ble mem­bers of so­ci­ety, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by the United Nations De­vel­op­ment Pro­gram. The im­pacts are al­ready be­ing “mag­ni­fied” in the Caribbean where small is­land nations are hit by re­peated storms ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

Part of the chal­lenge is the “phys­i­cal­ity” of sur­viv­ing the storm it­self said Lisa Ben­jamin a na­tive Ba­hamian who teaches In­ter­na­tional Cli­mate Change Law and En­vi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice at Lewis & Clark Law School in Port­land, Ore­gon.

“We have heard sto­ries of a num­ber of young chil­dren who have ba­si­cally been ripped from the arms of their moth­ers through storm surges or try­ing to evac­u­ate and have died,” Ben­jamin said of hur­ri­cane Dorian.

Daisy Cartwright of Freeport, on Grand Ba­hama is­land, was car­ried away by the storm as she tried to help her grand­daugh­ter to safety.

“The wa­ter came up so high they de­cided they had to go up on the top of the roof,” Cartwright’s nephew Greg Smith, also of Freeport, said of his aunt Daisy. “In the process of do­ing that, she had got­ten up on the roof, and they were hand­ing one of her grand­chil­dren to her. She lost her grip and ended up fall­ing into the wa­ter. The tide was so strong, it pulled her away.”

As re­cov­ery ef­forts be­gin, women will face ad­di­tional chal­lenges, Ben­jamin said.

“You don’t think about it, but af­ter the storm, women, with schools that are closed, they have to look af­ter their chil­dren, so they are not able to go back to work and a lot of the work that is avail­able af­ter these storms is phys­i­cal, man­ual la­bor, which of­ten em­ploys men,” she said.

‘A huge is­sue of cli­mate jus­tice’

As hur­ri­cane ac­tiv­ity in­creases, small is­land nations in the re­gion are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly vul­ner­a­ble to the im­pacts of cli­mate change that they did lit­tle to cause.

The Bahamas’ con­tri­bu­tion to global green­house emis­sions is 0.01 per­cent of all emis­sions world­wide, yet the coun­try is fac­ing in­creas­ing risks that come with sea level rise, warm­ing wa­ters and in­ten­si­fy­ing storms that can be ex­ac­er­bated by global warm­ing.

“This is a huge is­sue of cli­mate jus­tice,” Ben­jamin said. “We are suf­fer­ing the dev­as­tat­ing im­pacts of this which are ex­is­ten­tial and we are not the cause of it.”

With 80 per­cent of its land within 3 feet of sea level — Dorian’s storm surge was 18-23 feet — it’s un­clear how the is­land na­tion can sur­vive ris­ing seas and in­creas­ingly fre­quent and in­creas­ingly dev­as­tat­ing storms.

“While we have very vul­ner­a­ble sub­groups within the coun­try, the coun­try it­self is highly vul­ner­a­ble,” Ben­jamin said. “We need ac­tion from de­vel­oped coun­tries. We need ac­tion from large de­vel­op­ing coun­tries as well.

“Oth­er­wise, this pat­tern will just repli­cate, in­ten­sify and worsen.”

Phil McKenna writes for In­sid­eCli­mate News.

This story was pro­duced in part­ner­ship with the Florida Cli­mate Re­port­ing Net­work, a multi­news­room ini­tia­tive founded by the Mi­ami Her­ald, the South Florida Sun Sen­tinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Or­lando Sen­tinel, WLRN Pub­lic Me­dia and the Tampa Bay Times.

JOSE JIMENEZ/GETTY

Peo­ple carry pos­ses­sions through what re­mains of The Mudd area of Great Abaco is­land on Sept. 5, five days af­ter Hur­ri­cane Dorian struck the Bahamas with a surge that flat­tened much of the low-in­come neigh­bor­hood.

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