The Bahamas’ former health minister says the country so badly botched its record-keeping on Hurricane Dorian’s missing victims that today it cannot say with certainty how many people actually died in the horrific storm.
Dr. Duane Sands, speaking in the country’s Parliament on Thursday, said the Bahamas should convene a coroner’s inquest to help bring closure to grieving families. Thousands of names of the missing after the hurricane disappeared off the missing-persons list, he said, without explanation.
There should also be a public conversation about the mistake, he said, and a public apology by the government “for getting it wrong the first time.”
“Let us publish the names of the lost souls and then formally memorialize them,” Sands said.
Dorian hit the Abacos and Grand Bahama over Labor Day weekend in September 2019 as a catastrophic Category 5 storm, and the most powerful hurricane to ever hit the archipelago southeast of Florida. The storm came to a near-standstill over the islands, leaving major devastation. According to Sands, the official death toll was 74.
The storm’s massive destruction along with the slow pace of the rescue and recovery led to wide speculation that the true number of deaths was far higher than what the government has said. Taking to social media, Bahamians at the time said they had personally counted scores of dead bodies. Others questioned whether the government was telling the truth.
Sands defended the counting, telling the Miami Herald the government was not suppressing Hurricane Dorian’s death toll and was simply tallying confirmed deaths as the bodies arrived at the morgue.
He called information suggesting a cover-up “false” and “unfortunate.”
On Thursday, while addressing his fellow lawmakers, Sands acknowledged the government screwed up. A missing-persons list, controlled by the Ministry of Social Services and which had thousands of names, was pruned, he said, after the Royal Bahamas Police Force took over. “Thousands or hundreds of names” were excluded from the official list of names, he told Parliament during a budget debate.
“To this day we do not know what happened,” Sands said.
“We did not handle the identification of those who lost their lives or those still missing well,” Sands said. “The official death toll post Dorian stands at 74. The actual death toll and reconciliation of missing persons remains unknown. Many families continue to grieve not only for the loss of loved ones but for the uncertainty of what became of their remains.
“As of today, we do not know … who is lost, missing, or missing and presumed dead,” he said. “I fear that we have not sufficiently elevated this matter as a national priority.”
This was Sands’ first public comment addressing Parliament since he resigned on May 4 as health minister last month amid the COVID-19 pandemic and a public spat with Prime Minister Hubert Minnis. Sands had allowed a private plane to enter the territory despite the closure of its borders. Minnis called it a breach of protocol.
On May 22, two weeks before the start of the June 1 hurricane season, the government finally buried 55 unclaimed storm victims whose remains were in a refrigerated trailer in Abaco after holding an ecumenical service. During the mass burial in a public cemetery in Central Pines, Abaco, families of storm victims were upset at the lack of answers over identification and the handling of the bodies.
During his speech, Sands said the government had no DNA matches for those persons recently buried.
“The public deserves to know how many samples were taken … how many times have those samples been tested … by whom? Why is there no publicly accessible listing or database of missing persons? What are the names of the people lost? … The mothers, fathers and children,” he said.
He noted that among those suffering is the country’s undocumented migrant population, which is mostly Haitian.
“In the Bahamas, our population of undocumented migrants have paid a premium with possessions lost, lives of loved ones lost, and we have not consistently assured that they were afforded safe spaces to interact with government agencies,” Sands said. “We have not completed the grieving from Dorian. That incomplete grieving was interrupted by a greater trauma — COVID-19.”
Sands said too little attention was paid to the issue of the missing and dead.
“Responsibility was spread over multiple ministries and government agencies. It was believed that this would ensure greater clarity,” he said. “It proved to be a recipe for disaster.”
He called on the government “to look objectively and honestly at our approach to missing persons and deceased persons.”
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