Hurricane Recovery in the Bahamas: Turning Good Intentions into Good Decisions


Sep 6, 2019

A man walks among debris at the Mudd neighborhood, devastated after Hurricane Dorian hit the Abaco Islands in Marsh Harbour, Bahamas, September 6, 2019, photo by Marco Bello/Reuters

A man walks among debris at the Mudd neighborhood, devastated after Hurricane Dorian hit the Abaco Islands in Marsh Harbour, Bahamas, September 6, 2019

Photo by Marco Bello/Reuters

As the extent of destruction from Hurricane Dorian on the northern Bahamas becomes clear, the country's government has to make rapid-fire decisions. Where will they send the next rescue crew? How will they distribute food and water? How will they get the power back on? Lives are at stake.

In the weeks that follow, the Bahamas will face other crucial choices that will shape its recovery. Time still will be of the essence, but these decisions will have long-term ramifications. And in a way, lives will still be at stake. From other disasters, we've learned that well-intentioned early reactions can harm vulnerable groups such as the poor or elderly in the short term—and perpetuate or worsen preexisting inequities in the long run.

Well-intentioned reactions to disasters can harm vulnerable groups in the short term—and perpetuate or worsen inequities in the long run.

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In the months after Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico, for instance, hundreds of schools were closed swiftly to prevent students and teachers from being exposed to structural damage, mold, and vermin. Decisions were then made about which schools to reopen. For logistical reasons, and as part of a movement to encourage more urbanization, schools in smaller, more remote communities were more likely to be left closed. Over time, however, such decisions are likely to adversely affect not only students, but their families and the quality of life in these communities.

Research from previous disasters has shown that students whose schools were closed suffer academically and have poorer quality of life over the long term. Additionally, eliminating important community hubs and removing trusted adults (teachers) can erode social networks that are a key resource for communities dealing with trauma. And finally, if the families of students decide to relocate to other locations, that will exacerbate local economic problems.

These types of government decisions have to get made—but the tradeoffs are complicated. In an ideal world, there would be analysis and discussion among Bahamian residents and policymakers, and the many factors would be well understood. The period right after a natural disaster is the furthest thing from that ideal scenario. The political pressure to get communities functioning again is intense. Future conditions—socioeconomic, demographic, or environmental—are highly uncertain. The public often responds to government advice in unexpected ways because they were not consulted when plans were being developed or don't have confidence in those plans. Add all that to the typical clash of perspectives. Mistakes get made.

If diverse stakeholders are consulted, recovery can be a time for communities to rebuild in ways that are stronger and more resilient.

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Disaster-struck areas like the Bahamas would benefit from responsive and adaptive methods for planning disaster recovery. These approaches enable—in fact, encourage—course corrections as circumstances evolve during the recovery. In fact, if diverse stakeholder groups are effectively consulted, recovery can be a time for communities to find a new path and rebuild in ways that are stronger and more resilient.

The situation in the Bahamas is daunting, but there are ways to move forward that can reduce the risk of some necessary urgent decisions backfiring and harming vulnerable populations. For example:

Equity impact assessment. This is a process for weighing the short- and long-term impacts of proposed policy and program decisions—and it can be done rapidly and cheaply. If formally integrated into the rebuilding process, such assessments potentially help reduce negative health outcomes, socioeconomic impacts, or other disparities.

Collaborative governance models. These bring government, nonprofit, and private-sector partners together to provide public services or programs efficiently. They also provide another path for disaster-affected communities to work together on recovery plans.

Financial flexibility. If recovery dollars are allowed to be invested to create more sustainable development, that can help avoid wasting money on what are temporary fixes to long-term problems.

Ethical debt instruments. Social impact bonds or green bonds are another tool that can encourage more sustainable development during the recovery.

Recovery in the Bahamas will have to be a balancing act. The plans will need to allow for transition toward long-term strategic goals for the nation, but also be mindful of not perpetuating inequities. Creating an inclusive and iterative recovery process will require communities to come together in new and more coordinated ways. This is very difficult work, but it's essential for building a future Bahamas that is more resilient than before.

Melissa Finucane and Joie Acosta are both senior social and behavioral scientists at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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