People and Community University

A rebirth after Dorian

Life on Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas is striving to get back to normal, but the scars of Hurricane Dorian are plainly visible around every turn.
Damage from Hurricane Dorian is still evident in the Bahamas. Relief efforts continue just three months after the storm.
The view from The Crossings in Marsh Harbour show damaged houses juxtaposed to the inviting waters of the Bahamas. Photo and videos: Peter E. Howard/University of Miami

MARSH HARBOUR, Great Abaco Island, Bahamas—Looking out from The Crossings, a cove on the eastern end of Marsh Harbour, the waters are a tantalizing, brilliant aquamarine, heavenly made and inviting. 

But around you, everywhere, a flotsam of devastation remains—sunken boats, crippled docks, imploded houses, piles of debris—and the bright blue of machine-made, polyethylene tarps wink at you from many, many rooftops. 

Hurricane Dorian swooped through the northern Bahamian islands of Grand Bahama, home of the cruise ship destination of Freeport, and Great Abaco Island, the nation’s third largest island surrounded by dozens of smaller cays, on Sept. 1, leaving a path of brutal carnage, killing more than 60 people, and causing more than $3 billion in damage. 

Now the country is striving to repair itself, both physically and mentally. Thousands of Abaco residents have returned to their island, and thousands more are expected to show up in the near future. There is a new welcomed buzz around the town, but the amount of work to be done is daunting. 

Power crews are installing telephone poles and stringing new wire. Gas stations sporting portable pumps are operating. Grocery stores are open with minimal supplies. Residents are hauling trailers of trash and debris to the dump, and workers dotting the rooftops of many houses and businesses haul tarps while others pound nails into new shingles with a staccato thwack, thwack, thwack. 

“I’m waiting for my island to come back,” said Dominique Nannings, who huddled in an attic with family and friends during Dorian and is now distributing free drinking water to residents from a portable desalinization plant supported by the nonprofit, Water Mission. 

Last Monday, on Dec. 2, the first physician with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine arrived here for a week-long deployment at the Marsh Harbour Healthcare Centre, a 32,000-square-foot facility that provides 24-hour primary and emergency care for Great Abaco and its outlying cays.


University leadership visits Abaco on Sept. 22

Bahamas Minister of Health visits University of Miami

The stories of Dorian at Marsh Harbour


Dr. Paul Wetstein, a trauma surgeon who works at Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Ryder Trauma Center, provided needed help to the rotation of doctors at the hospital that are seeing roughly 40 patients daily. Next in line are Dr. Anjali Saxena and Dr. Lauren Shapiro, both assistant professors of clinical at the Miller School of Medicine. 

“I didn’t know about this opportunity initially, but this is the type of work that make me tick,” said Wetstein, who is an active duty major in the U.S. Army. “I want to be at ground zero when people need help.” 

The University is helping in other ways, as well. 

Since shortly after Dorian hit, Marie Guerda Nicolas, professor and psychologist in the School of Education and Human Development, has been working with a team of psychologists from the Caribbean Alliance of National Psychological Associations, which includes Bahamians and Haitians, to provide counseling. Many of the victims of Abaco were Haitian immigrants who had settled into a low-lying area called The Mudd that was essentially wiped clean in the storm. 

The School of Architecture is working with the Bahamian government to provide assistance in rebuilding impacted areas with resilient structures. One target is designing a resilient health care clinic on Elbow Cay, not far offshore from Marsh Harbour. Architecture students will be working on concepts in the spring semester, and looking at ways to support reconstruction, said Sonia Chao, research associate professor in the school. 

Similarly, Landolf Rhode-Barbarigos, a civil, architectural, and environmental engineering assistant professor in the College of Engineering, is also looking at the best ways for Great Abaco to rebuild. He recently visited the stricken island to assess the damage with Bahamian officials. 

“I was amazed by the spirit of the people,” he said. “They are very resilient, and they want to rebuild.” 

Rhode-Barbarigos said he urged Bahamian officials to study the buildings that did not sustain much damage so that they can find the most sustainable building practices. “We learned that you can construct with all types of structures and materials and if we do it right, we can survive this type of storm,” he said. 

School of Nursing and Health Studies faculty and students are also standing by on how they can assist in providing health care training, along with other University of Miami efforts. 

On the medical front, Dr. Barth A. Green, a neurosurgeon who is executive dean for global health and community service at the Miller School of Medicine, and Dr. Elizabeth Greig, an internist who worked with Green nearly a decade ago to coordinate the University’s response to the devastating earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, reached out to the minister of health in the Bahamas, Dr. Duane Sands, just after Dorian hit. Days later, Greig was in Freeport on her first assessment trip. 

“Our initial trip was to look at setting up a field hospital in Freeport like we did in Haiti,” Greig said. But Freeport was teeming with nonprofit relief agencies and doctors and the immediate need was being addressed. The University partnered with the nonprofit organization Direct Relief to provide medical supplies, and Carnival Cruise Lines stepped in to help repair Rand Memorial Hospital in Freeport. Shelters set up in the capital of Nassau also had an abundance of doctors and nurses from relief agencies on hand. Green and Greig began looking to the future. 

“We started looking at long-term assistance we could provide in the health care system,” Greig said. 

The nonprofit relief agencies that flooded the islands following the hurricane have limited funding, many for just one month of support and others for up to three months, Greig said. Some are starting to leave now, and more are expected to exit in January, just at a time when more and more Abaco residents are pouring back into their home island, which will result in more health needs. 

At the Marsh Harbour Healthcare Centre, about a dozen ministry of health workers from Nassau—doctors, nurses, and support staff—are working one-week deployments to Abaco. They are housed in a converted maternity ward, and meals are provided by relief agencies. The University expects to increase the number of UHealth doctors at the clinic beginning in January, Greig said, and the government is working to repair resident housing next to the clinic and bring in temporary housing. 

“At this point, the Bahamas are faced with a pretty unique situation,” she said. “The health care workforce is suffering from burnout.” 

The Bahamian government is asking for up to seven doctors a week to serve the Marsh Harbour Healthcare Centre and satellite clinics on several of the outlying cays, including Guana Cay, Moore’s Island, and Treasure Cay. Help is needed for routine primary care as thousands and thousands of residents return, and to treat and assess emergencies ranging from car and construction accidents to medical emergencies such as appendicitis. 

“The University will do the best it can do in that regard,” Greig said of the request for more doctors. “The relationship-building that has gone on with the Bahamas Ministry of Health has been exciting. It’s years and years of work to bounce back and bounce back better.” 

Greig and Green looked at what was done in Haiti as a guide. Following the earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, the University set up a tent hospital on the airport tarmac in Port-au-Prince. That tent hospital is now permanent bricks and mortar, and fully staffed by Haitian health care workers. 

“We have viewed this emergency with the same template of what happened in Haiti,” Greig said. “We view this as an opportunity to advance medical care on the islands for the future. In our minds the work is just getting started.” 

Bahamians believe the future looks bright. 

“It’s going to get back to where it used to be, but it’s going to take time,” said Dr. Indira Jones, a medical officer with the Bahamas Ministry of Health who was deployed from Nassau to the Marsh Harbour health clinic on Dec. 2. “The island people, they love their home.”

News@TheU writer Jannette Neuwahl Tannen contributed to this report.

Video from Marsh Harbour, Great Abaco Island, on Sept. 22, 2019.  

Video from Marsh Harbour, Great Abaco Island, on Dec. 4, 2019