By Daniel A. Durazo
Hurricane Dorian made landfall on the Island of Abaco in the northern Bahamas, Sept. 1. Maximum sustained winds of 185 miles per hour and a 20-foot storm surge tore apart houses and peeled pavement off the road. By Sept. 2, the storm had reached Grand Bahama, where it then stalled for nearly 48 hours, destroying the second largest airport in the Bahamas, causing massive flooding, and damaging property throughout the island.
Hurricane Dorian is the most powerful storm ever recorded in the 700-island archipelago. But days before the storm had even arrived in the Bahamas, the U.S. Embassy in Nassau was already on the move. As it became clear that the full force of a Category 5 storm would strike Abaco and Grand Bahama, the U.S. Mission started working around the clock, making preparations to start search and rescue operations as soon as the weather allowed. Chargé d’Affaires Stephanie Bowers and the team at the embassy connected directly with the National Hurricane Center, getting the most up-to-date information on the storm. The Mission also communicated constantly with their counterparts at the highest levels of the Bahamian government, preparing to deliver assistance where and when it was needed most.
One of the Mission’s priorities was also to keep its personnel safe. By Aug. 29, the embassy requested—and the Department of State approved—ordered departure for all Mission personnel and family members in the city of Freeport on the island of Grand Bahama, keeping U.S. personnel out of harm’s way.
Throughout Dorian’s development, the embassy posted updated information on the storm’s trajectory via social media. Using Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, the embassy reached thousands of people in the Bahamas in the days leading up to landfall, reminding everyone in the storm’s path to prepare, and heed emergency messages from the Bahamian government. The Mission shared information on how to best prepare for severe weather and the location and contact information for local shelters where they could stay safe during the storm.
Even as Dorian continued to hover over Grand Bahama, Sept. 2, causing power outages as far away as Nassau, the U.S. Coast Guard was already in the air. Braving tropical winds, lightning, and bursts of torrential rain, they deployed helicopters to the worst-hit areas in Abaco to rescue injured people and bring them back to Nassau. Assets from Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Defense joined the effort in the following days, and shortly thereafter U.S. Northern Command sent in heavy-lift aircraft, capable of transporting large numbers of people and heavy supplies. Over the course of three weeks, their collective efforts saved the lives of more than 400 people.
The U.S. Mission also ensured that Bahamian officials were able to see the damage firsthand just days after the storm hit. By Sept. 3, Bowers, Prime Minister of the Bahamas Dr. Hubert Minnis, and Vice Adm. Scott Buschman of the U.S. Coast Guard were on a helicopter, surveying the worst-hit areas in Abaco. After the flight, Bowers summarized the collective goal of the U.S. and Bahamian governments, “to assist the victims of one of the most catastrophic natural disasters the Bahamas has ever experienced.” Over the course of the following weeks, the U.S. delivered on that promise.
As early as Sept. 4, working closely with the National Emergency Management Agency of the Bahamian government, the U.S. Mission also requested support from a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) from the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA)—which is part of USAID. In the following days, more than 100 disaster response experts—including 57 search-and-rescue personnel and four canines from Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue, as well as a small team from the Los Angeles County Fire Department—were on the ground in the Bahamas.
Collectively, the mission facilitated the U.S. government efforts to survey more than 1,000 homes and buildings, assess air and sea ports, schools and bridges, and transport enough supplies from USAID/OFDA’s Miami warehouse to help 54,000 people on Abaco and Grand Bahama. DART transported water, food, shelter, and tools to the Bahamas and worked with both local and international NGOs and their partners in the Bahamian government to distribute these supplies to the people who needed them most.
The interagency team at the U.S. Embassy executed a coordinated response involving thousands of women and men from dozens of U.S. government agencies, including USAID, the U.S. Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Northern Command, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, the Department of Commerce, the Department of State, and others. As of Sept. 30, the U.S. government has provided nearly $34 million to partners and agencies responding to the disaster. This massive, whole-of-government effort exemplifies the unique capabilities that a U.S. Mission can bring to bear when responding to catastrophic natural disasters overseas.
Daniel A. Durazo is the public affairs officer at Embassy Nassau.
The Office of Emergency Management assists domestically during Hurricane Dorian
By Lynda Kasonde
The Bureau of Administration’s Office of Emergency Management (A/OEM) responds to domestic disasters, with a focus on protecting life and property and the intent of resuming normal operations as quickly as possible. As Hurricane Dorian formed in the mid-Atlantic, Aug. 27, A/OEM began daily coordination calls with the Department of State offices in the projected path of the storm. Nearly 2,000 Department employees in 31 domestic offices were at risk. Calls continued until the storm was no longer a threat to domestic locations. A/OEM also deployed Department Liaison Officers (LNOs) 24/7 for 11 days beginning Aug. 28, in support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Response Coordination Center. LNOs were prepared to adjudicate international offers of assistance, respond to requests for information, and coordinate with functional and regional bureaus to address all aspects of a domestic crisis. Thankfully, Hurricane Dorian’s impact on the United States was far less than originally predicted as a direct hit Category 5 hurricane, but A/OEM stood ready to assist as needed.
Lynda Kasonde is the director of the Policy and Planning Division in the Office of Emergency Management.