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Desperation Follows Dorian's Devastation In The Bahamas


In the Bahamas, thousands of people were left homeless by Hurricane Dorian. The storm was a great leveler, both physically and socio-economically. It struck down the seaside mansions of the rich as well as the shanties of the poor. But recovering from disaster is especially difficult for people who were struggling to get by to begin with. One of the neighborhoods that was hardest hit in Marsh Harbour on Abaco Island was home to thousands of immigrants, many of them from Haiti. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports that migrants have been some of the most desperate in the days after Dorian passed.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: During the worst of Hurricane Dorian, 42-year-old Jean Noel says ocean water poured into the shantytown where he lived and quickly flooded his house.

JEAN NOEL: After 10, 15 minutes, the water just come up, up, up, up, way high than the window. The water come to the window where we were. And after that, we got to walk - the door - we was inside the house, we can't even open the door. We got to climb up off the window to get off the room.

BEAUBIEN: The sustained winds of 185 miles per hour were firing pieces of sheet metal and tree limbs through the air. Noel says he and his girlfriend clung to the top of a 10-foot-tall iron gate to keep from getting washed away. He says he believes he was about to die.

NOEL: Only God could save our life.

BEAUBIEN: The neighborhood, known as The Mud, where he used to live, is now a field of debris with not a single building still standing. Thousands of people, most of them migrants, lived here, and the death toll in this neighborhood is thought to have been immense. Since the storm, Noel has been sleeping in a Catholic church. He says there's no way that he can stay in Marsh Harbour, and what he really wants right now is to go back to Haiti.

NOEL: You can't do nothing. They have to clean that and to bring you stuff. So the thing is, we need to get a move from there - go Nassau, buy our own ticket and go home - that's it.

BEAUBIEN: At the dock in Marsh Harbor, hundreds of people, many of them Haitians, are waiting for what's known as the mail boat to Nassau. It's a fairly large ferry that in addition to the mail also carries shipping containers and passengers who normally can't afford to fly between Nassau and Marsh Harbour. During a tour of the hurricane devastation, Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis stopped by the dock and addressed the crowd of people desperately trying to leave the island. He assured Haitians that they will get just as much disaster assistance as locals.

PRIME MINISTER HUBERT MINNIS: All of you, all of you will be treated with respect, so do not be afraid of my government. All of you will be treated equally. There's no discrimination here. We are all one.

BEAUBIEN: Yet even the Prime Minister's words underscored how marginalized Haitians and other migrants have been here. Julio Ortiz from the Dominican Republic had been working in Marsh Harbour for six months when Hurricane Dorian hit. For nearly a week after the storm crashed into the Bahamas, he hadn't been able to get in touch with his wife back home. We lend them a phone.

JULIO ORTIZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BEAUBIEN: He says the cellphones haven't been working. There's no Internet. He doesn't speak English and hadn't been able to get a message to his family.

ORTIZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BEAUBIEN: He says it's a relief for him and his wife now that she knows he survived the storm. Ortiz came to the Bahamas to work and to make money. On this day, he's scavenging through a pile of hurricane debris trying to find a propane gas bottle to hook up a stove. He hasn't worked since the storm. And with most businesses damaged and shut down from Dorian, it, may be weeks months or even longer before Ortiz can find more work.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Marsh Harbour, Bahamas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.